Starting spots up for grabs as India prepare for Intercontinental Cup

Under normal circumstances, India's guaranteed three games at the Intercontinental Cup, which begins in Mumbai on Friday, would be a healthy preparation for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup in January.

After all, New Zealand are a formidable side who missed out on a third World Cup finals appearance only through a playoff defeat to Peru. Chinese Taipei are on a run of six wins in their last seven matches, their scalps including teams like Bahrain and Philippines. Kenya, when at full strength, have the luxury of calling upon someone like Victor Wanyama, a key part of Tottenham Hotspur's top-three finishes in the Premier League for the last two seasons.

India begin their campaign in slightly abnormal circumstances, though. Kenya have some of their top clubs reportedly at loggerheads with the football federation, and there's no guarantee that their provisional squad, already missing all their top Europe-based players like Wanyama, will not see any further dropouts. New Zealand and Chinese Taipei are both in a phase of rebuilding, and both teams have traveled to India without some key players.

India must concentrate on their own house, with head coach Stephen Constantine yet to announce a final squad, which would suggest he might be keen on giving several members of his 30-man probables a go over the coming week.

Chhetri's big 100

In the home-stretch leading up to his second Asian Cup with the Indian team, Sunil Chhetri needs two matches to become the first Indian to have played 100 internationals. Bhaichung Bhutia is often credited as the first Indian footballer to cross the 100-caps mark, but that figure includes age-group competition, and Chhetri anyway leads Bhutia as the highest scorer for India, with 56 goals. The 100 in the caps column should at least statistically seal Chhetri's status as India's all-time great.

Chhetri has nine goals in his last 12 appearances for India, and Constantine will welcome the presence of his captain, who missed India's last Asian Cup qualification match in Bishkek against Kyrgyzstan in March. India's 2-1 defeat was their first since 2016.

Places in defence up for grabs

About a year ago, when India were in the middle of a run of positive results during Asian Cup qualification, the defence was one of the team's strengths. The central combination of Anas Edathodika and Sandesh Jhingan was at the heart of those performances.

Anas missed most of the Indian Super League (ISL) after becoming one of the two most expensive picks at the domestic draft, while Jhingan had an inconsistent season for Kerala Blasters. The combination reunited for the Kyrgyzstan game, but allowed two goals in. They would know that any further chinks in the armour could see more competition for spots open up.

A new-look midfield

Constantine has often shown an inclination to field a 4-3-3 or a 4-1-4-1, with the central midfielder ahead of the defence occupying an important role in both breaking the opposition down and initiating attacks on the break. Both Eugeneson Lyngdoh and Rowllin Borges have played that role well for Constantine, sometimes partnering to play in a more conventional 4-2-3-1.

Lyngdoh is sidelined through injury for a long time now, and Borges too has had a poor ISL season with NorthEast United. India had initially selected Dhanpal Ganesh, ISL winner with Chennaiyin, but he had to withdraw from the team due to typhoid. This has opened up a place for Vinit Rai, who had an impactful season for Delhi Dynamos. In fact, Rai would be one of several midfielders such as Anirudh Thapa, Pronay Halder and Souvik Chakraborti, all of whom would be looking to impress and stake a claim for a place in matches ahead of the Asian Cup.