The Indian Under 17 team is set to make history of sorts when they take to the field against formidable US team in their opening group fixture of the Under 17 World Cup at the JawaharLal Nehru Stadium on Thursday.
India qualified automatically for the event as hosts. They have prepared well with the All India Football Federation (AIFF) sending the players for training tours in Europe and a tournament in Mexico but the home side are the clear underdogs.
Known for its man-to-man marking, USA are the clear favourites in the Group A match at the refurbished Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. Most of the American players ply their trade in Major League Soccer youth teams and a couple of them are set to play in top European clubs as well. India would enjoy the home advantage and captain Amarjit Singh and his team-mates have promised to be competitive at the showpiece event.
The feat of playing in India's first-ever FIFA tournament should spur them to bring out their best and deliver something worthy of a host country. They will also be the first Indian players to feature in any World Cup.
More than that, odds are heavily against India tomorrow as the players lacked competitive matches besides they didn't attend any professional academies unlike their American counterparts.
Moreover, the Indian team was assembled in just seven months by head coach Luis Norton de Matos who took over in March after the sacking off German Nicolai Adam. Adam, who was made India U-17 head coach in February 2015, built a team by scouting talent from across the country through trials and tournaments but he got the boot early thisyear after a reign of two years for allegedly abusing the players.
Portuguese de Matos made several changes in the team, bringing in at least half a dozen players in key positions. The two teams are more or less unknown quantities to each other. A pragmatic de Matos has, however, warned against any miracles from his boys, conceding that there is a big gapbetween his boys and the other teams.
He has no illusions in the difference in quality between European and American players who have spent at least six- seven years in a professional academy.
The Portuguese tactician has indicated that India cannot play an open game and his focus would be on strong defence and not to concede goals. His strategy would be to rely on smoothand swift transitions from defence to offence and hit on the counter-attacks.
He is expected to start Moirangthem Dheeraj Singh at the goal while two regular center backs Anwar Ali and Jitendra Singh are certainties.
Sanjeev Stalin should start as the left fullback while Hendry Antonay is expected to man the right full back's position in place of Boris Singh, who was ruled out afterpicking up a red card against Iran in the AFC U-16 Championship in Goa last year.
The six-feet-two inch defensive midfielder Jeakson Singh could be the key man who will strengthen the defence as well besides helping captain Amarjit and Suresh Singh Wanjam in the midfield.
Komal Thatal, who scored a brilliant goal in India's campaign against Brazil in the BRICS Cup last year, has been doing well at the left flank while Aniket Jadhav is expected to start as the lone striker.
De Matos has conceded that USA are strong in offense and the Indian defence and the goalkeeper will have to be strong and patient enough to thwart attacks from the opposition.
"They (USA) will be strong in attack and we have to prepare to counter their attack. We have to be strong in defence," de Matos said.