Wingers Lallianzuala Chhangte and Ashique Kuruniyan scored a goal apiece as India began their SAFF Championship defence with a 2-0 win against Sri Lanka in Dhaka on Wednesday. The duo's top performance suggested they could help head coach Stephen Constantine plug some of the holes in his first-choice team going into the AFC Asian Cup in UAE next January.
Although India had a good 2017, they seem to lack depth in central midfield and the wings. While Anirudh Thapa and Germanpreet Singh did well as the two holding midfielders, a sterner test against fitter and faster opposition will give a better idea if they are likely to give compete with Rowllin Borges or Mohammad Rafique for a spot in the senior team.
India normally play Udanta Singh and Hollicharan Narzary along the wings, supporting Sunil Chhetri and Jeje Lalpekhlua up front. Sometimes they vary their formation to allow Udanta and Narzary to use the width more, but Narzary in particular can be one-dimensional. Wednesday's match provided both Chhangte and Ashique the chance to play the flanks, and it was something they excelled in from the word go.
Constantine began Chhangte on the right and Ashique on the left, the idea being to allow the left-footed Mizo winger to cut in and take shots on his favoured left foot. The first chance of the match fell to him, but his first-time connection with Germanpreet's cross just went wide of the Lankan goal. He then swapped positions with Ashique, who cut inside to receive a through-ball down the middle and showed composure in easing the ball past Sujan Perera to put India ahead.
They swapped positions again during the first half itself, and Ashique kept presenting problems to substitute defender Harsha Fernando with his skills. At the other side of the pitch, left-back Sajith Kumara also found it tough dealing with Chhangte's pace.
India swapped the two wingers again at the start of the second half, and Chhangte put in another burst of speed before sending in a cross, that beat Perera into the far corner of the Lankan net. It was made to look extraordinary, but was an overcooked pass that went into goal. It provided India some breathing space to try out other players, including another winger in Nikhil Poojari and another central midfielder in Vinit Rai.
Grouped alongside the Lankans and Maldives, India's predominantly U-23 team faced their easiest match to begin their campaign. Sri Lanka were playing just their fifth international match in 32 months and the lack of match fitness showed in the number of errors that crept into their game. But notwithstanding the weak opposition Chhangte and Kuruniyan deserve more time on the pitch to stake a claim for the senior team.