Young India look for a bright start

Houghtons men face Taipei in AFC Challenge Cup opener

 India, the highest ranked side among the four teams at 145th -- other two being Pakistan and Turkmenistan -- in Group B qualifying round, are playing their first senior international match after the AFC Asian Cup in Qatar in January.

Striker Sunil Chhetri will captain the senior side for the first time in his career.

Defender Raju Gaikwad and striker Jeje Lalpekhlua, both from new I-League side Indian Arrows, are set to play their first international match with the senior side after playing in the 2012 Olympic qualifiers last month. India had hosted Chinese Taipei in international friendlies in May 2008, beating them 3-0 in Goa before drawing 2-2 in Chennai.

They had qualified for the Asian Cup in Qatar in January after winning the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup at home.

The 23 Indian players registered for the tournament include eight players who were in the Asian Cup squad and all of them are expected to start at the MBPJ Stadium.
Goalkeeper Subrata Paul, the best performer in the Asian Cup, will man the post. His understudy, young Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who was also among the 23 players in the Asian Cup, could make an appearence in one of the remaining two matches.

Gouramangi Singh and Anwar Ali should start as central defenders while Gaikwad is expected to be brought in later in the match. N S Manju, returning after an injury, is likely to start as left back, while Govin Singh could man the right side.

Steven Dias and Joaquim Abranches are certain to start in the midfield with two out of the quartet of Jagpreet Singh, Rakesh Masih, Jewel Raja and Shilton D’Silva giving them company.

Jeje Lalpekhlua, who has been in good form in the I-League and in the 2012 Olympic Qualifiers, is likely to start with Sunil Chhetri in Houghton’s traditional 4-4-2 formation. Sushil Kumar, who was in Doha for the Asian Cup but had to sit out due to suspension, and Viva Kerala striker CS Sabeeth, will start from the bench.

The top two teams from the tournament will qualify for the final round of the AFC Challenge Cup, which will be held next year. India play Pakistan on March 23 before taking on Turkmenistan in the last match on March 25.

Houghton said the tournament will be a tough one but will serve as good exposure for the younger players. “It will be a closely fought tournament and there will be tough competition and we hope to qualify. It is a good experience for youngsters like Jeje Lelpekhlua and Raju Gaikwad who will play tomorrow,” Houghton said at the pre-match press conference.

“This tournament is a prelude to next year’s AFC Challenge Cup. This will be useful for World Cup qualifiers in June. Most of the players who played in the AFC Asian Cup are not here and they will be in reckoning for World Cup qualifiers,” he said.

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