Stephen Constantine will start preparations for the final round of 2019 Asian Cup qualifiers in Mumbai on Sunday cautiously upbeat about Indian football team’s chances of qualifying and with the aim of eventually breaking into the top-100 of the Fifa rankings.
In an interview to HT, Stephen Constantine also said making the 24-team finals would “reflect our (India’s) consistency.” Under Bob Houghton, India had played the 2011 Asian Cup finals so this would be India’s second finals berth in three editions.
“I think the last two years have been very productive… Going forward, our target is to qualify for the (2019 Asian Cup) finals,” said Constantine in an e-mail.
Constantine said there is a “legitimate chance” of India qualifying for the finals in UAE from a group that also has Myanmar, Kyrgyz Republic and Macau. But by drawing a parallel with the 2018 World Cup qualifiers where India finished last in the group, he said it wouldn’t be easy.
India start against Myanmar away on March 28 and play a friendly in Cambodia six days before that.
“We need to prepare well and if we do so, we have a chance,” he said. Preparing well would entail regular friendlies between now and March 27, 2018 when the home-and-away qualifiers end, he said. India are likely to play Lebanon before the game against Kyrgyz Republic (June 13).
“These games (friendlies) help us to understand the formations and the systems while helping the team to gel at the same time,” he said.
When he took charge in 2015, India were 171 in the Fifa rankings three slots below Pakistan. They go into this month’s qualifier ranked 132.
Constantine said the Fifa rankings provide “the platform to show improvement…(But) I am never satisfied as a coach and I would want to get into the top 100.”
Constantine came here after taking Rwanda to their highest Fifa ranking of 68. “Not being afraid to introduce youngsters, I think, has been key to success in India and Rwanda. My target has always been to build a team for the future.”
So far, Constantine has given debuts to 30 players. The trend started in his first game against Nepal when he handed maiden caps to seven and has continued through this month’s probables’ list where he has named four newcomers.
‘Lack of game time a blessing’
Constantine said the lack of game time in the I-League for India’s first-choice central defenders Sandesh Jhingan and Arnab Mondal due to injury could be a “blessing in disguise.”
“Both boys played in the Hero Indian Super League and haven’t had the rest for some time. So, I am not too concerned that they haven’t played too many games. It actually helps us.”
The coach also explained why he retained players such as Rowlin Borges and Jackichand Singh who haven’t had much game time in the 10th I-League.
“Ideally I would like them to be playing regularly…. (But) their form with the national team is important. The main reason being is that they know exactly what we need from them. It is easier for those players to adjust than it is to bring in somebody who is coming for the first time. Having said that, the door will always be open for other players to get the opportunity.”