"We’ve finally got respect for Indian football, we’ve woken the sleeping giant. It was dead and buried four years ago," India football coach Stephen Constantine emphatically told ESPN after the 4-1 win over Thailand in the opening contest of AFC Asian Cup in Dubai. Despite a gap of 21 places in rankings, Thailand were not expected to be an easy opponent for the Blue Tigers.
Several key players such as Teerasil Dangda and Chanathip Songkrasin returning to the Thailand side after the 2018 AFF Championship where they scored 17 goals in six matches. India, on the other hand have struggled to score goals last year.
But technical mastery in midfield against Thailand coupled with a brilliant showing from Sunil Chhetri and Ashique Kuruniyan up front, helped India attain their best ever result at Asia Cup. But for India, the road only promises tougher games in store ahead, the first of which comes Wednesday.
In their second Group A contest, India will face hosts UAE, a side which is placed 18 places higher than them in the World Rankings. In terms of achievements in the sport, UAE have done something that India have never done – they qualified for the FIFA World Cup, back in 1990. The nation has also been a regular at the AFC Asian Cup tournament, while this is only the fourth time India have made it to the stage.
In 2018, UAE missed out just by three points from booking a spot at the FIFA World Cup in Russia. Saudi Arabia overtook UAE to stand first in the table and enter the World Cup. India, on the other hand, had a disastrous qualifying campaign and they finished at the bottom of the table after a 2-1 loss to Turkmenistan in March 2016.
In 13 previous meetings between the two teams, India have lost eight and registered only two wins. The last time the two teams met was in a FIFA World Cup Qualification match in 2011 when the contest ended in a 2-2 stalemate.
HOPE FOR INDIA?
The AFC Asia Cup 2019 tournament has not started well for UAE. The 1996 runners-up were expected to shatter through Bahrainian defence and pick up an easy win in the first contest. But the curious team selections by coach Alberto Zaccheroni, who left out captain Esmail Mattar, came under much scrutiny after The White finished 1-1 in their first game. The draw did not come easy, either. It took a late penalty from 2015 Asian Player of the Year Ahmed Khalil to come off from the bench to earn the equaliser.
"It was important today to not lose the game. The good thing is that we came back and now we have to think about the next game," he said after the match.
After almost losing their opening match in front of the home fans, UAE appear to be wounded and this is where India’s chances of success lie. Going into the contest, India appear to be the more confident unit, with several players pitching in with good performances against Thailand. Apart from Chhetri who plucked in two goals, and Kuruniyan who was the primary playmaker for the team, Jeje Lalpekhua showed signs of a return to form when he struck a goal two minutes after coming on to the field.
Udanta Singh also impressed with his skills from the left wing in the first game and might see a start in front of Jeje, despite the latter scoring a goal. The youngster Anirudh Thapa also left a mark with his cool and calm finishing from inside the box and is also likely to make it into the starting XI.
Despite UAE missing the services of experienced striker Omar Abdulrahman, India’s defensive line-up comprising of Sandesh Jhingan and Anas Edathodika is expected to be tested especially with the opponents having 2018-19 UAE Pro League highest goal scorer Ali Mabkhout and star striker Khalil. The defensive duo tackled the Thailand threat easily but showed signs of fluctuation while defending against set-pieces, and this is one weakness the opponents might look to exploit.
Coach Constantine has announced the team would view a qualification to the knockouts as a mark of success. "We still have two games left and we still need another two points to qualify from the group stages. After we have qualified, we can get a little bit excited, but our primary job is still to qualify out of the group stages," he said at the press conference after the win against Thailand. But achieving the result could get tricky if India dropped the ball in the next game.