India has conceded four goals in its last seven games, scoring 11 goals and winning one trophy – the Tri-Nation Series in the process.
One player who has been a constant at the back is the 6′ 2″ defender Sandesh Jhingan, an astute pillar making key interceptions in India’s half and also being a perpetual aerial threat in set-pieces.
“The more clean sheets you keep, the more satisfied you are. But the credit goes to the whole team and coaching staff because I’m a firm believer that it’s a collective effort,” Jhingan told reporters in a press interaction on Wednesday.
“If my strikers don’t press at the right time, or the midfielders don’t pick the runs at the right time, you can keep clean sheets once or twice but in the longer run, you’ll need to work as a unit to go forward.”
Making his senior international debut in 2015, Jhingan was already making strides in avenues of Indian football, having won the Emerging Player of the Season in 2014.
Eight years later, Jhingan earned his 50th international cap, helping his team beat Vanuatu in the Intercontinental Cup at the Kalinga Stadium on Monday.
“We have improved a lot. When I made my debut against Nepal on March 12, 2015. We won 2-0. We were 175 then and now we are 99 or 100. So, we have improved 75 places, we have surpassed 75 countries,” Jhingan said.
“Our mentality has improved massively and the humility of knowing the areas we need to improve and keep on working for it every day.”
Strategy In The Intercontinental Cup
India came into the Intercontinental Cup after winning the Tri-Nation Series in Manipur and played two opponents for the very first time, Mongolia and Vanuatu. It won both games and Jhingan was one of the only two players, the other being Sunil Chhetri, to start both games.
“Against Mongolia, we wanted to get that early goal in because we knew they would sit back, with all due respect to them but we went into that game accordingly,” he said.
For Vanuatu, Jhingan got in touch with his friends from his previous Indian Super League side, Bengaluru FC, Roy Krishna and Erik Paartalu – two players who have played in Oceania before – to understand a side that had never travelled to this country before.
“I talked to Erik (Paartalu) and Roy (Krishna) before the game (against Vanuatu) to understand how they play and they said that they are very physical,” Jhingan said.
“So, our target was to move the ball as quickly as we can to not get trapped in their physical battle and use our technical abilities more. That sums up the chances we created, 23 chances.”
India’s real test comes against Lebanon – the only side among the participating nations to be ranked above it – on Thursday. India has already qualified for the final and Lebanon will need to just avoid a loss to meet it again in the final on June 18.
“Lebanon is a good team just like other teams there. From what I’ve seen of them, they have a lot of technical players and that probably justifies their team ranking,” Jhingan said.
“But I’ve said this before, any opponent irrespective of its ranking if you’re not prepared for it (the match), you’re very near to defeat.”
The Bigger Picture
India’s matches in the Intercontinental Cup, and then in the SAFF Championship later this month, can contribute to its improvement in FIFA Rankings and also allow head coach Igor Stimac to get his best squad for the AFC Asian Cup.
“There’s still a long way ahead. We know we need to improve in a lot of aspects and we are working on it. By the time the Asian Cup comes, we hope we are in a better position,” Jhingan said.
Though the matches are recognised as international friendlies by FIFA, it does have ranking points – something India will aim for against higher-ranked Lebanon.
A win here against the West-Asian side now and another in their potential clash in the final would give India important points that would essentially allow it to be drawn into a better pot for the second round of FIFA World Cup qualifiers.
Under the new format of the FIFA World Cup 2026, at least eight teams instead of four would make it to the World Cup (8 ⅓ instead of 4 ⅓) from Asia. For its second-round qualifiers, 36 teams will constitute nine groups of four teams each.
With the current ranking (No. 19 in Asia), India will be placed in Pot 3, with two better-ranked sides and one side ranked below it. An improvement here would see it drawn in Pot 2 – with one better-ranked side and two sides below it in the FIFA Rankings.
That, in turn, would give India a chance to qualify for the third round of World Cup qualifiers for the very first time.
“This is something the captain was also talking about today. It’s important for us to move up the rankings to get into a better pot and every country, not just us, will be looking at that,” Jhingan said.
“But we as a team want to keep winning, stay on the good run, improve our confidence and take one game at a time.”
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