| Japan’s Ryuji Bando during practice in Bangalore on Tuesday, the eve of their Asian Cup qualifier against India
Bangalore: Five and half years ago, in April 2001, the Indian football team scored their biggest ever triumph in recent times when they shocked mighty UAE in the World Cup qualifiers. Goan midfielder Jules Alberto rushed into the box to boot home an opportunistic goal that had a near capacity crowd breaking into wild celebrations for hours after the game was over.
If there was anyone around who thought it was only the beginning of a new era, he was sadly mistaken. Five years later, today, India, a battered and shattered lot in the Asian Cup qualifiers, will take on continental giants Japan on Wednesday more with an intention to complete the formality than anything else.
Skipper Bhaichung Bhutia was in his usual upbeat mood and talked about salvaging some pride. But for a team, which has conceded 19 goals in the last four matches, it would be next to impossible to make a comeback and put up a decent fight against a team, which has bulged the Indian net 17 times in their last three meetings.
“We have not done too well in our last few matches,” admitted Bhutia. “But I am sure we can make a turnaround on Wednesday. The weather is good here, the ground condition is perfect and we will surely get the backing of the local fans,” he said.
The organisers, however, are not very sure about a huge crowd coming out on a weekday to back a team, whose performance has reached almost the lowest ebb in the past few months. “There will be some spectators, but I really can’t promise an impressive crowd,” said AR Khalil, the president of the Karnataka State Football Association. “We might get a better crowd for the AFC Youth championships later this month.
When the Indian team went through their paces at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium in the evening, there was hardly anyone around to cheer them except for a handful of officials, busy giving the last minute touches to the venue. The Indian coach Bob Houghton was in his usual enthusiastic best, standing in the middle to look after the entire practice session, shouting instructions to players and his deputies.
Houghton has been doing his best to keep the morale of the team high. Though a list of 20 players was submitted to the AFC match commissioner for Wednesday’s match, he has asked the AIFF not to release any of the campers, except for Micky Fernandes, who was sent back after he had fever.
Japan may have brought more or less a second squad, but containing them in the middle would not be an easy task for India and no one knows it better than Houghton himself. Yet, the British coach has vowed to use all his tricks to keep the rampaging Japanese at bay for as long as possible. To do so, he has brought in NS Manju as a wing-back and NP Pradeep as the central midfielder. Sanjeev Maria would take Pradeep’s place in the middle of back four.
Houghton has even gone to the extent of announcing his first XI 48 hours before the match and has talked of strategies to counter his rampaging rivals. But as he said earlier, football at the international level has a lot to do with the mind game than anything else.
On Wednesday, Japan undoubtedly start favourites, but it remains to be seen whether India can keep their cool and stop the visitors from playing their natural game.
India: Sandip Nandy; Surkumar Singh, Dipak Mondal, Sanjeev Maria, NS Manju; Stephen Dias, S. Venkatesh, NP Pradeep, Rennedy Singh; Bhaichung Bhutia, Manjit Singh.
Japan (from): Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi; Alessandro Santos, Satoshi Yamaguchi, Yuichi Komano, Hiroki Mnizumoto, Naoaki Aoyama; Naotake Hanyu, Yasuhito Endo, Takahiro Futagawa, Kengo Namamura, Keita Suzuki, Yuki Abe, Yuto Sato, Hayuma Tanaka, Yasuyuki Konno, Satoru Yamagishi, Makoto Hasebe; Ryuji Bando, Seiichiro Maki, Kazuki Ganaha, Hisato Sato.