India coach confident he has established core group

MUMBAI: India soccer coach Stephen Constantine is confident he has the nucleus of a side that will qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup and be competitive for the next five years.

India, who have reached the Asian Cup finals on three previous occasions, have been drawn alongside Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar and Macau in Group A of the last round of qualifiers, with the top two teams advancing to the expanded tournament.

The Asian Football Confederation's (AFC) decision to increase the number of finalists from 16 to 24 has given the country a better chance of qualifying and they began their campaign on a strong note with a 1-0 win in Myanmar last week.

India's recent 3-2 friendly win over Cambodia will also help the side climb from their current ranking of 132nd in the world to their highest position.

Englishman Constantine has spoken of giving opportunities to youngsters to create a bigger pool of talent and has handed debuts to about 30 players in the last two years.

"I would always be looking at players who can make us better regardless of where they come from, provided they have Indian passports," the 54-year-old told reporters in Kolkata.

"I believe we have the nucleus of the squad. The average age of the side is 24.

"I believe we have a team that will take us hopefully to the Asian Cup and beyond for the next four-five years. We're on the right track."

India's qualification for the 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar came after they won the AFC Challenge Cup, a tournament for the lowest-ranked nations on the continent.

That was their first appearance since 1984 and while they are still the dominant force in South Asia, India remain a long way behind Asian heavy hitters like Japan, Australia, South Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Constantine, who lead Rwanda to their highest ranking of 68 in his last job, returned in 2015 for his second stint with India after their failure to qualify for that year's Asian Cup.

"I am proud of what we achieved in Rwanda, where football is at a different level and where we moved from 135 to 68 and I am immensely proud of what we are doing here. Can we do better? Absolutely," Constantine said.

Captain Sunil Chhetri is the country's most-capped player and top goal-scorer and his injury-time strike in Yangon gave India all three points but Constantine said there was more to the team than the 32-year-old forward.

"Sunil Chhetri is a model professional who is consistent, looks after himself and keeps popping up at the right place to score goals," he said.

"But we are not dependent on him. There are other players."