National Women's Team U16
A larger pool of players keeps U16 women's coach Biby Thomas confident
08 Mar 2024

Akhil Rawat
AIFF Media Team

KATHMANDU, NEPAL: While India's SAFF U16 Women's Championship campaign hasn't been smooth sailing so far - with a defeat to Bangladesh sandwiched between big wins over Bhutan and Nepal - the biggest positive has been that almost every player is getting a chance to prove herself.

Head coach Biby Thomas has utilised 20 out of 23 squad members in the three round-robin games so far. India have netted 18 goals, scored by nine different players. A further three have assisted, taking the total tally of goal-contributing players to 12. In what is a vastly diverse batch with players hailing from 13 different states of the country, it's heartening to see the unity among everyone at such a young age.

Anushka Kumari

"We wanted to give everyone an opportunity to play in this tournament. Except for three players, everybody has gotten a chance so far. It's good to see everyone playing their role in the squad," said Thomas.

Anushka Kumari leads the tournament scoring charts with five goals. The 13-year-old has scored in each of the three games, and the pick of the bunch has to be the superb long-range strike against Bhutan. She has also scored with her head, a delicate lob and a cross-turned-shot. Give her an inch, and she will always have an eye for the target. Anushka has not only thrived in her usual attacking midfielder position but also on the right wing.

Rupashree Munda

With four goals and two assists, Pearl Fernandes has been the other lethal Indian attacker. The lanky striker is not only clinical but an amazing dribbler too, producing one of the moments of the tournament when she turned 180 degrees on the by-line in a move which led to Gurleen Kaur's goal against Nepal. Pearl also netted arguably the goal of the campaign, a stunning curling strike against Bhutan which nestled into the top-right corner.

Wingers and full-backs have all been effective so far. The likes of Nira Chanu, Divyani Linda and Rupashree Munda have impressed with their crossing and registered an assist each. Right-winger Anita Dungdung took less than two minutes to score on her first start for India. And it was skipper Shveta Rani, who got the Young Tigresses going in Nepal with the first goal of the tournament. Her left foot has two assists to her name as well, both coming from corners, showcasing her set-piece skills.

Gurnaz Kaur (L) and Gurleen Kaur (R)

Thursday's match against Nepal was one-way traffic as India hit double-digit figures with seven different scorers. The bench strength was completely on show, particularly 12-year-old Gurleen Kaur, the youngest squad member, who was sensational with two goals and two assists. She could've even had a hat-trick but unselfishly decided to set up Gurnaz Kaur, who scored her first India goal with a fine first-time finish. The likes of Rheanna Liz Jacob and Anwita Raghuraman have also added their names to the scoresheet, wrapping up victories over Nepal and Bhutan, respectively.

Talk about leaders, and there are a few. In the midfield, there is Bonifilia Shullai, who has worn the armband in the absence of Shveta. Apart from forming a good partnership with Thandamoni Baskey, she found the back of the net against Nepal with a header and assisted Pearl with a brilliantly weighted ball over the top. Bonifilia has also been of moral support to the squad, congratulating her teammates after every goal and motivating them after every mistake.

Shveta Rani (L) and Bonifilia Shullai (R)

Every attack is built from the back, and that responsibility has been shouldered by the centre-back duo of Alena Devi and Elizabed Lakra, who have been equally crucial in India's goalscoring prowess, with good communication and long passes. Between the sticks, if Surajmuni Kumari was given the start in the first two games, it was Munni's turn in the third one. Late in the Nepal game, defender Amrita Ghosh and midfielder Ritu Badaik were also given a few minutes. All in all, game time to prove themselves and execute their learnings from training on the match pitch is exactly what players need at this age to develop.

Alena Devi

However, next up is the all-important final against Bangladesh, for which everyone will need to be at their best and not repeat the mistakes of the previous match against them.

"The players have regained confidence after the Nepal win. Now we can focus completely on the final. Our mentality has always been the same - playing direct and attacking football and playing in the opponent's half as much as possible. We have to go all out on Sunday," said Thomas.

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