Football minnows India stand on the cusp of history as the hosts are set to make their debut in a FIFA event against a formidable USA in a group match of the U-17 World Cup, which begins on Friday. 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 to 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 are part of Major League Soccer (MLS) 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 stacked against India, 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 this year 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 gap between 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 smooth and 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 full back while Hendry Antonay is expected to man the right full back's position in place of Boris Singh, who was ruled out after picking 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 going forward 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.
Captain and striker Josh Sargent will sign with Bundesliga club Werder Bremen next February when he turns 18. He also played at the U-20 World Cup in Korea earlier this year, making him the first US player since Freddy Adu in 2003 to play in the U-20 and U-17 World Cups in the same year.
Tim Weah, son of former FIFA World Player of the Year and Liberia great George Weah, is another striker and big talent. He signed with Paris Saint Germain earlier this year. US head coach John Hackworth has, however, refused to take India lightly in their first match.
"We've played India once before, we were successful against them. But it wasn't in the opening game of the World Cup, it wasn't them hosting a World Cup. My feeling is that, and from the information I've heard, there's going to be a very loud crowd.
"They (India) are incredibly athletic and hard-working team. We are going to have to beat the host country in the opening game and that is a difficult challenge," Hackworth said.
The US team has 17 players who were part of the team that played in the qualifying tournament -- 2017 CONCACAF U-17 Championship in April -- in which it had finished second, losing to Mexico in the final on penalties.
(With inputs from PTI)