The Nehru Cup is here! Just a day away now. The fantastic Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi should prove to be quite a venue to host this competition. After the 1 lac-seater Yuba Bharati Krirangan in Kolkata, this has to be India’s best football stadium. Hosting the Bayern Munich full squad is no mean achievement, mind you.
India are expected to have an uphill task this time around. For starters, there will be the pressure of defending their title from 2009. India have won the Nehru Cup both times since its reinstatement in 2007. It’s one of the very few tournaments, along with the SAFF Cup, that the national team have managed some sort of success in. And that wasn’t necessarily a very joyous statement. Hence, the pressure to perform will be high. Secondly, their star striker Sunil Chettri has just returned from Portugal. He was, of course, playing for Sporting Lisbon B and will go back there once the tournament is over. The cause of concern here is that he missed the complete national camp. He’s the captain and talisman of this team, remember. Missing a national camp doesn’t augur well for the team or him, for that matter.
The Indian team’s coach Wim Koevermans knows how to win, by the way. He was part of the Euro winning Dutch squad from 1988. Having plied his trade with the likes of Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten and Ronald Koeman by his side, there has to be something special that he’ll bring to the table. The AIFF should be duly lauded for bagging him for this post. Another brilliant decision was to keep the previous national coach Savio Medeira as an assistant manager. He coached the team for almost a year, and hence would be able to help Koevermans ease into his role. Besides, India’s style of play under Madeira was highly praised by experts, critics and fans alike. A student of ‘totaalvoetbal’ under Johann Cryuff, the former Dutch centre-half would love the fact that the team has already been practicing a fluid game for a few months.
Football Paradise has a keen look at the 20-member squad Koevermans has selected for the Nehru Cup.
It’s a no-brainer, really. Subrata Paul picks himself. Over the last year or so, Subhashish has done much better than most others in the domestic league. Gurpreet would have been stiff competition, but the 20-year old’s absence lets Subhashish, the chief custodian for national champions Dempo SC, ease into the squad as the second goalkeeper. Karanjeet will be third-choice.
Nirmal Chettri, Syed Rahim Nabi, Gourmangi Singh and Gurwinder Singh pick themselves based on form and skill. Rahim Nabi has proven himself as a full-back time and again. Gourmangi Singh is expected to be the other full-back in the starting line-up. Nirmal Chettri is a sure starter at the heart of the Indian defense. The other centre-back spot is up for grabs. From the remaining four in the probable list, Denzil and Raju Gaikwad should be making the cut. Denzil, who made his national team debut last year against Pakistan, has been a consistent performer for Churchill Brothers. His strength and composure have been marked out as special by the Goa-based club’s coaches time and again over the last year. East Bengal’s Raju Gaikwad has played as many as 11 international matches over the last 18 months. However, his appearances in the I-league have been few and far between. A total of 11 appearances for the Kolkata club last season, which include 6 in the league, is a cause of worry. But chances are, his consistent performances for the national team will put him ahead of Mohan Raj and Khelemba, in the team selection.
The Indian team is blessed with some serious class in the midfield department. Even the absence of a player as influential as Climax Lawrence doesn’t put a big dent. Mehtab Hussain, Clifford Miranda, Sanju Pradhan, Jewel Raja and Anthony Pereira all pick themselves. It is unlikely that any of India’s starting line-ups in the tournament will have someone outside of these five in the midfield. Clifford is an accomplished left winger, who has been a vital cog for Dempo SC for the last few years. Jewel Raja’s pace should see him being employed on the right wing alongside Mehtab Hussain, who prefers the central midfield. Sanju Pradhan is a conventional box-to-box midfielder who has a very good passing range. His composure with the ball can be the metronome for the Indian team. Salgaocar’s Francis Fernandes should find a way into the squad too. He’s been a mainstay for the Goan club over the last season and a half and his performances there should hold him in good stead. Alwyn George was fantastic for India in the AFC u-22 Championship, and that gets him his place in the squad. Lenny Rodrigues has been a consistent performer for Churchill Brothers over the last couple of years. A touch surprising, but his selection sends out a strong message that the coach is looking for pace in the midfield. What Lenny needs to keep in check, though, is his knack of making bad errors in judgement.
Robin Singh’s skill with the ball and physical presence were a sparkling feature of East Bengal’s 2011-12 season. Unless Koevermans turns experimental, he’s sure to give him a spot in the starting line-up as well. Savio Madeira preferred to employ a 4-4-2 with Chettri and one more striker upfront. With the captain joining the team, Koevermans is likely to play the same frontline. Pune FC’s star striker Jeje’s omission has risen a fair amount of eyebrows. Few realize, though, that Jeje couldn’t play much in the AFC U-22 Championship due to an injury and is still to be 100%. Coach Koevermans means business here. He’s not taking anyone who’s not fit.
The selection is exciting. Koevermans has sent a very clear signal to all those associated with Indian football : The best possible team will always be put forward. Reputations mean nothing if you’re not fit and in form. It’s hard to not be excited about the dawn of a new era of Indian football under Wim. Can we dream of making it to a sub-100 ranking in two years? The early signs are encouraging.