BENGALURU:Two defeats at home and three away have left India with the dubious distinction of being the only team without a single point in Group D of the Asian Zone 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers. They take on a better-prepared Guam at the rain-soaked Sree Kanteerava Stadium on Thursday. India then play Iran away on March 24, before returning to complete their engagements by hosting Turkmenistan on March 29.
With all to do, India coach Stephen Constantine concedes Guam are favourites on paper. “Guam have seven points and we have none. They are ranked above us, so, they are favourites. But, it’s what you do on the pitch that determines the result,” said the Englishman.
“Our first away match was against Guam. I was fully aware of the difficulties that faced us. We didn’t play particularly well and that has been the case in all our away games so far. But we are a better side now. We need the points to give ourselves the chance of making the playoffs,” Constantine added.
With India’s hopes of qualifying already over, they could well find a place in the continental championships if they garner some points. Their last qualifying fixture was a 0-3 defeat to Oman in Muscat on October 13. Due to ISL commitments, they only assembled here on November 9. Guam, meanwhile, landed three days earlier.
Worrisome for the hosts is the lack of a good strike-force and experienced midfielder to control the game. India have scored only three goals — Sunil Chhetri (2) and Jeje Lalpekhlua (1) — while conceding 12. After five defeats, the team has only its reputation to play for. The heavy rains, however, could add to India’s woes.
On the other hand, Guam, after defeating India 2-1, with Chhetri pulling one back only in injury time, are high on confidence. That stems from better preparation. English coach Gary White is highly qualified and a shrewd tactician as well. He has plans for his team and is confident that they will take second spot and qualify from the group.
“We have a definite chance of finishing second in the group. That is our target. When we face Oman we must have three more points. From that point of view, this game is very crucial for us and we will try and get those,” said White. “The spell of rain must have made the ground soft. But that will be the same for both teams. So I am not laying particular emphasis on the weather or ground conditions.”
Defender AJ DeLaGarza turns out for LA Galaxy in the Major League Soccer (MLS), while a couple of others play for lower division teams in the eastern or central conference leagues. “Except for DeLaGarza, none of my players figure in the MLS. They turn out for lower division teams and should explore possibilities of chances with Asian teams. If I was an Indian club-level coach, I would watch this game and pick some players for clubs in India,” White added.
In this scenario, India face a formidable task... maybe the crowd can lift their spirits. “I think the crowd in Bengaluru is the best and it is a pleasure to play here. They support us even when we are down and that’s very inspiring. They have lifted us so often,” said striker Sunil Chhetri and goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.
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