AFC Asian Cup 2019: India seek to validate progress as formidable Thailand provide litmus test in opener

Kaushal Shukla
Thailand may have an edge over India in terms of quality, but India have shown in recent times that they have the ability to contain superior opponents while creating an opening of their own.

Abu Dhabi: "It's (history) about to change," Indian coach Stephen Constantine was in bullish mood ahead of his team's AFC Asian Cup opener against Thailand as mentions of the team's struggles in their previous appearances at Asian football's premier event became a recurring theme at the pre-match press conference.

The coach was ably supported by goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu who repeatedly stressed how the current Indian team was "different" to the one in 2011 in which Sandhu played a peripheral role.

"I think the mentality (has changed). When I arrived four years ago, we went into the match with an aim to not lose by too many goals. Now we are not going into the game thinking that we are going to lose, we go into the game thinking we are going to win. On the pitch, our work rate has increased in the four years. We've put phenomenal effort into training and the games and the unity of the team and the work rate is why we are here," Constantine said ahead of the game.

Goalkeeper Sandhu too emphasised on how the team has built a belief in their abilities over the last four years that has enabled them to get results not many expected them to.

India's improvement over the past few years was acknowledged even by their rivals in their group. Constantine's opposite number, Milovan Rajevac, reserved special praise for the English boss.

"India have improved greatly over the last few years. Most of their players are now taller, physically stronger and are improving in every way. I also know the India coach and I know that he is always doing brilliant work. I am sure he has improved India with his knowledge and experience." Rajevac who crossed swords with Constantine during his time as Ghana manager said fondly, remembering his team's clashes against Sudan which was then managed by the current Indian coach.

The Thai captain Teerasil Dangda who is the only player in the current Thai team to have previously faced India, was mindful of the development Indian football has witnessed ever since.

"India now have a professional league. Some of the top, experienced players in world football have played in that league and I can see that the Indian players have learned from them. They have improved a lot in the last few years and this will be a different Indian team than what I faced in the past," Dangda addressed.

Dangda's thoughts were echoed by Bahrain's Abdulla Yusuf Helal, who was the country's first player to play for a European top division club when he joined Czech First League Club Bohemians 1905. "India is not a weak team anymore. They have good quality players and no one in the group can take it easy against them. I feel the group is very open and all the teams are capable of progressing to the next round," Helal told reporters after Bahrain's 1-1 draw with UAE in the opening match of Group A that includes India and Thailand.

India's football may not be the easiest on the eye, but it has been effective enough to give its players hope and earn legitimate respect from their opponents. However, with so much talk around Indian team's progress or the lack of it, with positive and confident noises about their chances in UAE coming from all corners of the team, it's time for the Indian team to deliver a performance of substance on the biggest stage that will truly validate their progress.

Thailand who have plenty of experience of rubbing their shoulders with the big boys of Asian football in their frequent forays into the latter stages of World Cup qualifications provide the litmus test for Constantine's troops.

Rajevac's side is unbeaten in eight games coming into the Asian Cup, but has faced slack back in Thailand for the team's failure to win the Suzuki AFF Championship, after they were knocked out by lower-ranked Malaysia in the semi-finals over two legs.

Since his appointment, the Serb has made Thailand a more measured side, with a bit more emphasis on defence. Thailand play with a 4-2-3-1 system that ensures plenty of cover for their rearguard. The shift in tactics have yielded nine clean sheets in 20 games for The War Elephants, but goals haven't been as frequent in supply as the past. Under the Serb, Thailand have only scored 31 goals in 20 matches.

The manager's approach has come under criticism of late, especially after the failure in the zonal championships, but he will be able to welcome back his four top players who were missing from the Thai squad for the recent tournament.

Chanathip Songkrasin is the most influential of the lot with the Thai midfielder coming to UAE on the back of a breakthrough season in Japan's J-League where he was named in the league's team of the season. Skipper Dangda has loads of experience and has netted 42 times in 95 appearances for The War Elephants. Adisak Kraisorn and Sanrawat Dechmitr comprise Thailand's front four who are very fluid and flexible in attack.

Constantine highlighted Thailand's attacking quartet as the chief threat to India on Sunday as he hailed the technical quality possessed by the Thailand team.

India are expected to have a familiar look to their line-up with Constantine showing the inclination to tinker little with a settled squad. Kerala Blasters' duo Sandesh Jhingan and Anas Edathodika are expected to start at the heart of the Indian defence with Subhashish Bose and Pritam Kotal flanking them.

In midfield Anirudh Thapa and Pranoy Halder forge a perfect engine room with Halicharan Narzary and Udanta Singh providing plenty of pace and running down the flanks. Up front, Sunil Chhetri and Jeje Lalpekhlua will be tasked with scoring India's goals with the duo having a history of stepping up on the big occasion.

India's greatest challenge will be to cope with the three Thai central midfielders without having to engage Chhetri in too much defensive work. The captain's composure on the ball will be key for India who will look to play out through their inspirational record goalscorer.

With Thailand's new-found doggedness in defence and a slightly more reserved system, a cautious start to the game might be in the offing. Thailand may have an edge over India in terms of quality, but India have shown in recent times that they have the ability to contain superior opponents while creating an opening of their own.

Bahrain's draw with UAE has opened up the group and India would need something against Thailand to be right in the mix for a place in the knockout stages. India's ambition and mentality against Thailand will go a long way in revealing if India have actually shed the underdog tag and can actually give Asia's best a run for their money.

Also See: AFC Asian Cup 2019: It won't be an 'easy job' for teams to face India, says captain Sunil Chhetri

AFC Asian Cup 2019: India goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu says team must approach matches smartly

AFC Asian Cup 2019: India coach Stephen Constantine announces 23-member squad for upcoming tournament in UAE

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