As the Indian national football team gears up to face China in an international friendly on Saturday, October 13, coach Stephen Constantine affirms that the game will only be a "friendly game for the world" but not for his players.
"When you are playing for India, you have to take it seriously irrespective of whatever game you play. You are representing 1.4 billion people out there and I can't tell you how important the game is for us," Constantine said.
The Indian team was welcomed in Suzhou, China on Wednesday after a six-hour-long flight. The match will be held at the Suzhou City Centre Olympic Stadium on Saturday and will kick off at 17:05 IST.
'Defenders will have to play a big role'
Right back Pritam Kotal, who missed India's last away fixture against the Kyrgyz Republic, said on arrival that defenders will be key to their success.
"Defenders will have a big role to play when we play China. We communicate with each other in the practice sessions and we have to be at the top of our games on Saturday," he said.
Despite India's winless record against China, coach Constantine sounded positive heading into the game. "We are not going there to lose. Yes, it's going to be very difficult but our objective is always to win when we step on the pitch," he said.
China has won 12 of the 17 previous matches between the sides and five ended in draws. The last match, in the 1997 Nehru Cup, ended in a goalless draw.
The match is seen as a preparation for the upcoming AFC Asian Cup 2019 slated to be held in UAE. Striker Jeje Lalpekhlua said, "In order to accelerate our preparation for the Asian Cup, we need to play such games. We are going to learn quite a few things from this game and we are looking forward to it."
More important than the result, for the team, is the performance of the players. In this regard, defender Sandesh Jhingan said, "The first and foremost thing is to improve as a team and as an individual. Results of a match always matter but we must focus on our performance primarily."
Despite recent wins in the Hero Intercontinental Cup, Constantine believes facing teams like China, who are ranked 76th in the world by FIFA, will be a truer barometer of where his team stands. The coach said, "China is a very good side. They like to play an attacking brand of football with high pressure. Our performance against China will be a great indication of where we are and how far we need to go."
Constantine feels his plans have been slightly affected by Balwant Singh's absence due to logistical issues but believes that the team will deal with it.
In terms of the starting line-up, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu will be the goalkeeper and the back four is expected to comprise – from right to left – Pritam Kotal, Sandesh Jhingan, Anas Edathodika and Subhasish Bose.
The central midfield partnership of Anirudh Thapa and Pronay Halder has performed exceedingly well for the national side but Constantine might want to have a look at Rowlin Borges. The lanky quarterback has been in good form during the Indian Super League and is also defensive-minded player which might force the coach to field him in place of Thapa.
Having made the right wing his own, Udanta Singh is an automatic choice along with Halicharan Narzary on the other side. Up front, Jeje Lalpekhlua will partner India's talismanic captain, Sunil Chhetri.
The 22-member squad is as follows
GOALKEEPERS: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Amrinder Singh, Karanjit Singh
DEFENDERS: Pritam Kotal, Sarthak Golui, Sandesh Jhingan, Anas Edathodika, Salam Ranjan Singh, Subhasish Bose, Narayan Das
MIDFIELDERS: Udanta Singh, Nikhil Poojary, Pronay Halder, Rowllin Borges, Anirudh Thapa, Vinit Rai, HalicharanNarzary, AshiqueKuruniyan
FORWARDS: Sunil Chhetri, Jeje Lalpekhlua, Sumeet Passi, Farukh Choudhary
HEAD COACH: Stephen Constantine