AFC Asian Cup 2019: Constantine sticks with tried and tested players

Indian team head coach Stephen Constantine says he has selected players he has worked with for the last four years.

Stephen Constantine: "I have a group of players who have, for four years, been outstanding for me and I am proud to lead these boys."   -  afp

Stephen Constantine has been at the helm of the Indian football team for the last four years. Having previously coached the national side between 2002 and 2005, he was well aware of the task at hand.

Since his arrival in 2015, he has managed to steer India to a FIFA ranking of 97, making a jump of 76 places from when he took charge.

READ | AFC Asian Cup 2019: 24 nations this time... prize money on offer, too!

The Englishman will embark on his career's biggest assignment come Sunday when India takes on Thailand in the AFC Asian Cup 2019 in Abu Dhabi. India has been drawn alongside UAE, Bahrain and Thailand in Group A.

The Blue Tigers have qualified for the AFC Asian Cup after an eight-year hiatus and Constantine feels his boys will need lady luck on their side to get past the group stage. “We feel we can get out of the group with a bit of luck and that is our goal,” he says.

In an email interaction with Sportstar, Constantine talks about his side's preparations, his selection procedure and expectations.

Excerpts:

India has played 11 international competitive matches in 2018 (including the SAFF Cup and Intercontinental Cup), but only three friendlies since October. In contrast, UAE has played 11 (6 between September and November), Bahrain has 8 (5 between September and October) and Thailand 11 (8 between October and December). Do you feel India is a tad under-prepared owing to the lack of friendlies in the lead up to the tournament?

Constantine: You can only (play) six internationals (games) in the FIFA window which is in September, October and November. Yes, you’re right that we played China and Jordan in the October and November window respectively. Of course, ideally I would have liked to play more games but it wasn’t possible, so no point complaining about it.

READ| Constantine: Proud to lead India in Asian Cup after difficult road

You have often stuck to tried and tested team combinations unless a particular player is injured. A couple of players who haven't made the national team yet, such as Jamshedpur FC's Michael Soosairaj, had impressed in the current Indian Super League season. Any reason why these players don't find a spot in your team?

There are always going to be people who want this player or that player from their club teams to be selected in the national team. I do the same thing when it comes to England – “oh! Why was this guy not selected?” and I understand this.

But, I have gone with the players who I know and have worked with for last four years. I know what they are capable of. Obviously, there are some new faces, in fact, we have given 49 players their international debuts in the last four years, most of them are U23s.

Sunil Chhetri is coming out of an ankle injury, Jeje Lalpekhlua has had a poor season in front of goal for Chennaiyin FC and Balwant Singh has managed to find the back of the net on only one occasion for ATK in the current ISL season. The attacking department seems to be in a spot of bother. How do you look to tackle this aspect?

Sunil Chhetri, who is coming out of an ankle injury, will once again be the linchpin of India's attack.   -  pti

 

Not a great deal I can do when players are not playing or being played out of their natural positions. We have had two weeks to sort things out and we will give everything we have at the Asian Cup as we always do.

India endured a disappointing campaign and lost all three group games and conceded 13 goals in the 2011 edition of the tournament. What is the target you have set for the boys this time around?

I am not interested in what happened in the past. We are here (Asian Cup Finals) after eight years and finished at the top of our group in the qualifying round!! We are going to give our best and make India proud. I have a group of players who have, for four years, been outstanding for me and I am proud to lead these boys and we will give everything that we have in the finals.