Sharjah: India are a point away from booking their place in the knockout stages of the AFC Asian Cup for the first time in their history, but a desperate Bahrain, who need a win to stay alive in the competition, lie in their path.
Exactly eight years to the day, India played Bahrain in the 2011 Asian Cup and lost 5-2. However, the Blue Tigers would believe that those days of struggling against the Asian big boys are well behind them.
India outplayed Thailand to hand them a 4-1 thrashing in their opening game before falling to a 2-0 defeat at the hands of hosts United Arab Emirates (UAE). India should have at least earned a point given the number of chances they created.
The performance of Stephen Constantine's men won several admirers despite not being enough to secure any points. On the basis of sheer performance, India have been the best team in the group and have caught the eye of everyone in the UAE.
However, failure to finish the job in the last game has left India in a sticky spot with the Blue Tigers needing a point against Bahrain, who also lost their previous match to Thailand, after making an impressive start in their 1-1 draw against UAE.
The pressure though, is more on Bahrain who will have to force the issue from the get-go. The situation in other group game means India would have a good chance to qualify for the knockout stages even if they lose by the odd goal and Thailand don't overtake them in the points table.
"India have it much easier than us. It's of if they lose 1-0 to us. They already have three points but I really hope after Monday's game, we qualify for the next round," Bahrain's Serbian coach Miroslav Soukup told reporters in Sharjah on Monday.
Bahrain have scored just one goal in the tournament so far which came against UAE in the opening game. They are yet to score from open play in the competition and Soukup wants his team to address that in their final game.
"We must always trust our players. Our defenders and strikers are really good. We had a good preparation before this tournament and I want my players to show more courage on the field tomorrow, especially inside the penalty box," Soukup said.
His opposite number Constantine was all praise for their opponents and felt it will be hard for his team to get a result that takes them into the Round of 16.
"Bahrain are a good team, they are very well organised, they've got some quality players and they will need to win this match so they will try to attack us, but we will be prepared for that," the Indian coach said.
Soukup deployed a 4-4-2 in the opening game against the UAE, but switched to a 4-2-3-1 in the game against Thailand. Considering the way the two games went, and Bahrain's need to win, the Serbian might revert to a 4-4-2 formation against India and restore Jamal Rashed to the line-up at the expense of defender Mohamed Marhoon.
Having conceded just two goals in the competition so far, Bahrain are likely to go with their tried and tested back four of Ahmed Ali Juma, Waleed Al Hayam, Hamed Alshamsan and Sayed Redha Isa. In midfield, Komal Alaswad and Ali Al Safi would form the central pivot with Sayed Dhiya Saeed and Ali Jaafar Madam providing the width. Up front, Mohamed Al Romaihi will lead the line with Rashed likely to play off him.
Al Romaihi netted against UAE and was a handful for the UAE defence and continuously caused problems with his movement. With an excellent ability to hold up the ball and link up play, Al Romaihi will be the biggest threat to India. Sandesh Jhingan and Anas Edathodika, who haven't been watertight by any means, would need to be on their toes to negate the threat posed by the Bahraini forward.
India, who hold a high line in an attempt to press the opponents high up the field, will have to be perfect with their press in midfield as Bahrain would be in business if they could engage Al Rohaimi in the space behind India's defence.
India would most likely name an unchanged side from the last two games. Jeje Lalpekhlua, who was introduced in the second half to hold the ball a bit better, could start at the expense of Halicharan Narzary with Ashique Kuruniyan switching to the left as he did in the second half against UAE.
India aren't best equipped to chase games, especially against a well-organised team like Bahrain who pose a real threat on the counter. Hence it would be crucial for India to not fall behind early in the game and hand a big advantage to Bahrain by easing their pressure.
Most Asian teams prefer playing a counter-attacking game as they lack the quality to unlock well-oiled defences and India and Bahrain pretty much fall in that category. In such games, the first goals plays a massive part and the game in Sharjah will hinge heavily on the first goal.
India have shown they can compete physically against most teams in Asia with their incessant running, but their mental strength would be put to a big test against Bahrain.
With both group games running simultaneously, the finish could get real nervy and India's ability to hold their nerve against top teams at the big stage would be tested. India have already overachieved by winning a game in the AFC Asian Cup, but a golden chance to reach the knockout stages of the competition is not one to be passed up.
As India eye history in the UAE, a formidable Bahrain side is likely to make their final lap in Group A a tricky one.
Updated Date: Jan 14, 2019 13:41:07 IST