Defending champions India begin their quest for a second straight Nehru Cup title triumph with a tricky opener against Lebanon when the five-nation football tournament gets underway in Delhi on Wednesday.
Under Houghton, India won the 2007 edition of the Nehru Cup before clinching the AFC Challenge Cup at home, which earned the country a berth in the elite AFC Asian Cup -- to be held in Doha in January 2011 -- after 24 years.
The Nehru Cup provides Houghton an opportunity to test his boys against quality sides Syria and Lebanon, who are also vying for a place in the Asian Cup.
Baichung Bhutia and his team are a confident lot after a seven-week training tour of Dubai and Barcelona. They played friendly games against Spanish third division sides during their month-long sojourn in Barcelona, where they utilized the top-class facilities at the Nou Camp.
The sore point though is the team's lack of international exposure. The Indians played their last such match in January though Houghton claimed that the Spanish third division sides "were of our level".
Houghton himself picked last edition's runners-up Syria as the favourites to win the tournament at the Ambedkar stadium, considering that the West Asians are inside the top 100 in the FIFA rankings at 95th and have beaten teams like China and drawn with Korea this year.
Having come without six regular international players, including a star striker, Syria may not be that formidable but their coach, Fajir Ibrahim, said he wants to win the tournament to boost team morale ahead of the ongoing 2011 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers, which resumes in November.
"This tournament is a part of our preparations for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup. We have won two out of two matches in the qualifiers. We are not targetting the Nehru Cup title, but, obviously, we want to win, as it would give us a morale-booster," Ibrahim said.
"India is the team to beat for us. They are the defending champions and they have the home advantage," he added.
India, though, do not want to think beyond the tournament opener against Lebanon. A win against Lebanon would give them a big chance to go to the August 31 final, as the two other sides -- Kyrgyzstan and Sri Lanka -- in the five-team round-robin are comparatively weaker.
Lebanon though would be a tough team to beat even though they are without four regular national players, including Ramez Dayoub, who signed up with Kolkata giants East Bengal this season.
"Lebanon are a good side. In our last two meetings with them we lost 1-4 and drew 2-2 (in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers in October 2007). So, our first match tomorrow is very important," Houghton added.
The Indian team is more or less the same as that of the 2007 edition with the exception of striker Sunil Chhetri, who is yet to recover from his right ankle injury though Houghton is hoping the Delhi lad will be fit for the latter part of the tournament.
This gives young Sushil Kumar and tall Mumbai forward Abhishek Yadav the chance to be in the playing eleven more often along with captain Baichung Bhutia upfront as was the case in the friendly games in Barcelona.
East Bengal captain Syed Rahim Nabi has also been tried by Houghton as a striker in Spain.
With the 2011 Asian Cup in mind, Houghton also indicated that he may start with younger legs in deep defence. In that case, taller players Gouramangi Singh and Anwar may be seen in action.
In the midfield also, Houghton is likely to field the younger Anthony Pereira on the left wing more often than senior player Renedy Singh, who has had minor injuries in recent times.
In fact, Renedy was tried at the right wing position in four friendly games in Barcelona as Steven Dias's substitute.
With the absence of Chhetri, talismanic captain Bhutia will have to find more goals for India besides trying to once again inspire his side to title victory.
The Sikkimese said his ongoing tussle with Mohun Bagan on his suspension issue has distracted him in the preparations of this tournament.
But having said that he will have to put his distractions aside and try to motivate his team-mates in front of the home crowd in a country virtually starved of international football matches.
More than 20,000 people came to the Ambedkar Stadium for the final against Syria on August 29, 2007 to cheer the home team, which won 1-0.
Exuberant fans celebrated wildly and Baichung and Co would want to see similar scenes at the venue again on August 31.
India (from): Subrata Pal, Arindam Bhattacharya, Subhashish Roy Chowdhury, Govin Singh, NS Manju, N Mohanraj, Anwar, Deepak Mondal, Mahesh Gawli, Surkumar Singh, Gouramangi Singh, Samir Naik, Mehrajuddin Wadoo, Baldeep Singh Jr, NP Pradeep, Renedy Singh, Syed Rahim Nabi, Steven Dias, Clifford Miranda, Anthony Pereira, Jagpreet Singh, Climax Lawrence, Rakesh Masih, Sunil Chetri, Baichung Bhutia, Sushil Kumar Singh, Abhishek Yadav.
Lebanon (from): Lary Mehanna, Elias Freije, Ali Al Saadi, Ahmad El Khodor, Hussein Amine, Bilal Cheikh El Najjarine, Ali El Atat, Hamze Abboud, Mohamad Baker Younes, Mohamad Korhani, Amer Khan, Abbas Ahmad Atwi, Hussein Dakik, Ali Yaakoub, Hassan Daher, Akram Moghrabi, Mahmoud El Ali, Hassan Maatouk, Mohamad Ghaddar, Ali Hamam.