Abu Dhabi: United Arab Emirates' clash with India in the AFC Asian Cup 2019 was meant to be a David vs Goliath affair. UAE are playing in their ninth Asian Cup, have recorded 12 wins in the competition's history and finished the previous edition in third place.
India, on the other hand, celebrated their first win in the competition after a gap of 54 years when they beat Thailand in their opening game. The 2019 edition is India's fourth appearance in the finals, having qualified through proper qualifiers after a gap of 34 years.
However, despite the vast difference in pedigree, India's game against the hosts is building up as a close affair with all three outcomes well within the realistic boundary.
The reason is simple. India are on the up, buoyed by the historic win over Thailand which followed positive results against Oman and China, albeit in friendly games. The Blue Tigers have lost just three out of their last eleven games and seemed to hit their peak in the game against Thailand.
Meanwhile, UAE had an uninspiring performance against Bahrain in the 1-1 draw on opening day. The hosts looked lackluster without their talisman Omar Abdulrahman and had to rely on a fortuitous late penalty to earn the point.
Off the pitch, not everything seems to be rosy with rumors about coach Alberto Zaccheroni wanting to leave doing rounds in the media. Croatian coach Zlatko Dalic who guided the team to the World Cup final in 2018 is reported to be lined up as a replacement for Zaccheroni and is expected to be in the stands at the Zayed Sports City stadium on Thursday. Although the UAE FA denied any such advances, Dalic's expected presence will not help in curbing speculation.
Right-back Bandar Mohammed is an injury doubt, so are Ismail Ahmed and Saif Rashid. Failure to win against India will severely dent the hosts' hopes of winning the group which is the bare minimum expectation considering UAE were the top-seeded team in the group.
Zaccheroni admitted there's little margin for error for his team after their draw in the opening game, but feels his team has it in them to get the desired result despite the difficulties that India might cause.
"Tomorrow's game will be a make-or-break game. There will be a lot of passion and desire to win. In fact, more than in the first game. We will try to change the image of the team that played against Bahrain.
"I'm convinced the UAE played very well against Bahrain, especially the first 30 minutes. We will change that image and give a good image in the next game," said the former Juventus manager.
The Italian, though, brushed aside rumours of an exit, stressing his focus was completely on helping UAE get back to winning ways.
"Our focus now is on the game against India. I have enough experience. Yes, we know that in football we can hear a lot of things said outside of the pitch, like in Italy where they have three newspapers dedicated to football. But my focus is on the game against India and to deliver the best performance and satisfy the UAE fans," he added.
For India, the pressure is off after the win against Thailand. The Blue Tigers have already surpassed expectations in UAE, and with three points already in the bag, the UAE game is far from being a do-or-die battle for the Indians. This seems to have boosted Indian players' morale going into the game.
"The mood (of the team) is great. The burden of not winning a game at the Asian Cup is behind us and we are looking forward to this great challenge in front of us. Having three points already is great, but we begin with a clean slate against UAE and we have to make sure we perform with consistency," goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu told reporters on the sidelines of the team's official training at the Zayed Sports City stadium in Abu Dhabi.
UAE present a different challenge to India as compared to Thailand, but having faced west-Asian nations in the shape of Jordan and Oman recently, India wouldn't be completely alien to the physical style of play most Gulf nations adopt.
"Oman are the Gulf Cup champions. So drawing with them was an encouraging result, so was China. There are similarities between Jordan and Oman with UAE and these were important games and that's why we set them up. We planned everything till the last detail. We've taken first step with win against Thailand and now have a tough game against UAE, but we will fight like we have done in the past few years. We will try to get the result that we need," Indian coach Stephen Constantine asserted reflecting the positive mood in the Indian camp.
The 56-year-old who is not known for making too many changes to his side is unlikely to tinker with his winning formation, although Jeje Lalpakhlua might be brought in to replace Ashique Kuruniyan to add more experience to the squad if the coach wants.
UAE are likely to retain their 4-4-1-1 shape from the last game. However, goal scorer Khalil Ahmed who was surprisingly demoted to the substitute's bench in the Bahrain match shpuld return to the side.
The game is not expected to see a lot of goals with UAE under Zaccheroni earning a reputation to keep it tight. The hosts have scored just 10 goals in 17 games since the Italian took over and have played out six 0-0 draws in those games.
On the flip side, UAE have an enviable defensive record, having kept 10 cleans sheets since October 2017 when Zaccheroni was brought in. It will be interesting to see what approach Constantine adopts. The Anglo-Cypriot coach might be tempted to go with a more defensive approach to frustrate the under-pressure UAE, who have been rather impotent in front of goal.
A win would send India into the Round of 16, while a draw would more or less guarantee a spot in the next round. Even a narrow defeat might not hurt the team's chances too badly, but Constantine would like to not leave too much hinging on the final game against Thailand.
India are in the best possible moment in terms of form and morale, while the same cannot be said of UAE. The once David vs Goliath battle is suddenly an even contest and the smell of an upset in the air is palpable. India are looking to win two games in a single AFC Asian Cup campaign for the first time since 1964, and with the knockout berth in sight, the incentive would never be higher.