New Delhi: In what has become a traditional Nehru Cup rivalry over the past couple of editions, India takes on Syria in their 5th encounter spread over 3 Nehru Cups.
In the last two editions of the Nehru Cup, the Red Eagles have defeated India in group matches, before being upstaged by the Blue Tigers in the final, with the 2009 loss on penalties particularly irking the Syrians.
However this time, Marwan Khouri’s side, shorn of their best players and having not taken part in a competitive International game for over a year, start as slight underdogs against India, who under new head coach Wim Koevermans, have been making all the right noises in the build-up to the tournament.
The coach is expected to alter the traditional Indian 4-4-2 formation to a more flexible and fluid 4-4-1-1, with Alwyn George set to make his full debut for the Blue Tigers, playing in the hole behind Sunil Chhetri, who is expected to lead the line, with the Dempo duo of Clifford Miranda and Anthony Pereira lining up on the two wings.
Subrata Paul will be back in goal, while the defensive quartet of Nirmal Chettri, Gouramangi Moirangthem, Raju Gaikwad and Syed Rahim Nabi wear a familiar look.
A pre-dominantly defensive pivot of Lenny Rodrigues and Mehtab Hussain is expected to provide some much needed safety screen to a somewhat porous looking defense.
While there is much optimism amongst Indian fans about the style of play likely to be implemented by Koevermans, it remains to be seen how the players, for so long used to a hoof ball style of playing, will adapt to the new system.
The amount of work that needs to be done before a change in playing philosophy is successfully implemented was highlighted when the senior side could not get past a Pailan Arrows side in a friendly encounter in Delhi recently.
For Syria, while they come with a squad full of players yet to make their debut, one could take them lightly at their own risk, as this side contains several players who took part in the U-17 FIFA World Cup in 2007 in South Korea.
Experienced heads like goalkeeper Mosab Balhous and Bakri Talab, who is capable of playing in either midfield or defense, and were part of the 2009 Nehru Cup squad, will have vital roles to play in the team.
If they do line-up in their traditional 4-4-2 formation, then Hani Al Tair upfront could be a possible danger man for India, as his physique and eye for goal, as well as movement could make it a very busy night for Gouramangi and his defensive colleagues.
The defense is the Red Eagles` strong point, as ahead of Balhous, the inexperienced but talented Hamzeh Al Aitoni, another member of the 2009 Nehru Cup campaign and a part of the 2005 U-20 World Cup squad, is expected to marshal the defense.
Other U-17 graduates like Ahmad Al Salih and Alaa Al Shbli are also in the running to make the first eleven, and the duo have the pedigree to shut out India’s attack, with Shbli’s rampaging runs down the wing adding another dimension to Syria’s attack.