India may opt for four central defenders against Saudi Arabia
Need to stay compact in the middle, says head coach Igor Stimac ahead of round-of-16 match
India are likely to start with four centre-backs against heavyweights Saudi Arabia in Thursday’s round-of-16 game in the men’s football tournament of the Asian Games. Both teams finished second in their groups but while Saudi Arabia notched up two wins, against Vietnam and Mongolia, and drew 0-0 with Iran, India had a victory on either side of a defeat and a draw.
Saudi Arabia’s squad has three players each from Al-Hilal, the country’s most successful club with 18 league titles where Neymar Jr plays, Al-Ahli, who have signed Roberto Firmino and Edouard Mendy, Al Shabab, now Romain Saiss, Ever Banega and Yannick Carracso’s club, the Robbie Fowler-managed Al-Qadisiyah and Al-Ettifaq where Steven Gerrard is in charge of a roster that has Jordan Henderson, Giroginio Wijnaldum and Moussa Dembele. There are two players from Karim Benzema’s new club Al Ittihad and one from Al-Nassr who started the trend of getting big names from Europe by signing Cristiano Ronaldo.
Coached by Saudi Arabian Saad Alshehri, all players in the Games squad were born on or after 2000, as per details on their football federation’s website. Most of them were part of the Asian under-23 qualifiers earlier this month where Saudi Arabia beat Mongolia, Lebanon and Cambodia scoring 12 goals and conceding one on way to making the finals. In Hangzhou, they have scored six and let in one.
“They can field two quality teams with the squad they have got here,” India head coach Igor Stimac told HT over the phone from Hangzhou on Wednesday. In a game where India are likely to have less of the ball, skipper Sunil Chhetri, in an All India Football Federation media release, stressed on the need to avoid getting into one-on-one situations.
With no specialist full backs – that’s like a bird whose wings have been clipped, said Stimac –India have had to improvise. Stimac opted for a back four with Sumit Rathi and Abdul Rabeeh as full backs against China, switching to a back three after Chinglensana Singh arrived for the 1-0 win against Bangladesh and the 1-1 draw with Myanmar.
In this knockout game, India could play Sandesh Jhingan, Narender Gahlot, Chinglensana Singh and Lalchungnunga as defenders.
Two of Saudi Arabia’s goals against Vietnam came from defenders, from centre-back Mohammed Al-yami and left back Zakrei Alhowsawi. Alhosawi, who is at Al-Ittihad, is likely to push up as he did on way to beating Vietnam 3-1 and Mongolia 3-0. He is fast, can drift wide and deliver a cross or cut inside. It could mean a busy evening for Rahul KP, who could start as right-side midfielder.
If Bryce Miranda doesn’t recover from fatigue after starting all three games, India might opt for Rahim Ali on the left, according to a team official. And try Rabeeh as Amarjit Singh Kiyam’s partner in central midfield. As right back, wide right and in midfield, Rabeeh has slotted in well. He can be the ball carrier for Sunil Chhetri who might play behind the strong Gurkirat Singh operating as the lone forward.
“Saudi Arabia have shown here that they can create through the middle. So we need to be compact,” said Stimac. Case in point was Haitham Asiri’s goal against Mongolia, off a through pass from Mohammed Maran. It was also through the middle that Maran, who is with Al-Nassr, scored against Vietnam. Awad Alnashri and Mohammed Abualshamat are likely to pull the strings in the middle.
Saudi Arabia have two Asian Games medals in football, bronze in 1982 – when they beat India 1-0 in the quarter-final, which was also the last time the teams met in this competition – and silver four years later. India have two gold and a bronze but their last medal was in 1970.