AFC Asian Cup 2019: Underdogs India must dream big at quadrennial event despite tough competition from continental elites

India are set to return to the biggest footballing stage in the continent as the AFC Asian Cup 2019 gets ready to unfurl.

The Blue Tigers last participated in the tournament in 2011, which ended with a group stage exit. The 17th edition of the quadrennial event will be the Blue Tigers' fourth-ever appearance at the continental showpiece.

 AFC Asian Cup 2019: Underdogs India must dream big at quadrennial event despite tough competition from continental elites

File image of India captain Sunil Chhetri. PTI

The South Asian side has been drawn in Group A of the 24-team continental tournament alongside hosts UAE, Bahrain and Thailand. And will kick-off their tournament with a match against War Elephants — Thailand — on 6 January at the Al Nahyan Stadium in Abu Dhabi.

There have been talks of how the upcoming tournament could be a stepping stone for India towards realising the dreams of qualifying for the 2026 World Cup. However, it will be smart to not get carried away and stay in the present.

India’s qualification for the tournament was eased by Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) decision to increase the number of finalists from 16 to 24 and by some shrewd scheduling on the part of All India Football Federation (AIFF).

At the same time, India have enough reasons to be optimistic about their participation in the Asian Cup. They qualified for the tournament after finishing at the top of their qualifying group, which included teams like Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar and Macau. Recent goalless draws against China, Oman and a narrow defeat at the hands of Jordan, means Sunil Chhetri and Co may be underdogs but they certainly pack a punch.

The preparation for the tournament has been elaborate with coach Stephen Constantine handing debuts to over 30 players in his second tenure with India. He would definitely like to believe that he has got the best squad he could with his list of final 23 players.

Renedy Singh, the star of India’s campaign at Asian Cup in 2011, certainly feels that the current unit is the best India could have taken to the continental showpiece. He adds that a favourable draw could also make things easy for India as they aim for Round of 16.

“We could not have hoped for a better group of players. We have a great unit. In 2011, we had South Korea and Australia in our group. Bahrain was the weakest among the opposing three sides. Bahrain is no Australia. UAE is not South Korea. So, this is the best group we could have got. We should be able to do well,” Renedy said speaking to Firstpost.

The former India captain also feels that Indian players are stronger technically in comparison to 2011 and that should hold them in good stead.

“Things have changed since 2011. Players are now stronger tactically after playing in Indian Super League (ISL). They are getting to train under good coaches, so they are more technically sound. They have done well against China and Oman. We wanted them to play more friendlies against higher-ranked teams but that’s in past. In any case, they should be able to do well against Thailand with all the experience they have.”

Another factor that has raised India’s hopes is the provision of the four best third-placed teams also making it to the next round. Given India’s resolute results against China and Oman, there have been discussions of the Indian team trying to frustrate their opponents in order to notch up just enough points to finish as one of the four best-placed teams.

Renedy, however, is of the opinion that India must take the attack on Thailand with an aim to secure all three points.

“You can’t think of all three games from the beginning. You need to target the first game first. I am sure Constantine is talking about it with the players. They should try to go for a win against Thailand. Even if we get a draw, not bad. We have done well against them in the past. Thailand have some good players who are playing in Japan and all but we should be able to do well. Play the first match and then decide the future course of action based on the result of the first game,” said the 39-year-old former Indian footballer.

“Constantine have been there for three years. The players have been together for a long time. It’s time to show if they can play attacking football as well. Of course we need to careful at the back but it will be interesting to see how they play going forward.”

Former India goalkeeper Henry Menezes shared similar insight. The deputy chairman of AIFF technical committee feels Indian players need to take the field with a positive frame of mind instead of looking to play out draws. “We can’t say Thailand is a weak side, Bahrain is a weak side or UAE is a strong side. We have to go with a positive frame of mind as we have good players in all departments. Chhetri can get goals. Ashique Kuriniyan, Anirudh Thapa are young and talented. Sandesh Jihngan, Anas (Edathodika ) are experienced. They have the experience of playing against good players in ISL. The plan has to be to get on the field with the positive intent, do the right things and hope for positive results,” Henry told Firstpost.

One of the major concern for the Blue Tigers going into the tournament is the poor from of the forwards. The strikers have not only struggled at the international level but have endured a horrific time at the club level as well with the star striker Jeje Lalpekhlua struggling to put the ball at the back of the net for a long time.

While Constantine has opted for the pairing of Chhetri and Jeje in the games again China and Oman, Renedy wants Balwant Singh to start along with Chhetri.

“Jeje needs to be in top form to play in the tournament. He’s not in best of form but you have a player in Balwant who can work very hard. For me, I will play Chhetri and Balwant. May be you can bring Jeje a little later,” said Renedy.

Henry is confident that the Indian unit is blessed with enough versatile players to fall back upon.

“Jeje is one option. Sumit Passi has also shown that we can rely on him. The final decision on what formation to play lies with the coach but we have versatile players. Jeje has not been in great form but he’s known for his good co-ordination with Chhetri. But there are good replacements,” said Henry.

However, we can expect Constantine to stick with Chhetri and Jeje for the first game at least with him trying to rely on quick midfielders like Udanta Singh, Ashique Kruniyan and experienced defenders to wear out the opposition and attack on the counter. More importantly, given the historic nature of the occasion, it will be important for the players to stay mentally strong for the upcoming challenges.

"This is once in a lifetime opportunity for all the 23 players that have travelled to UAE for the tournament. There are many players who never got the chance. We got the chance to play the Asian Cup in 2011 after 27 years. So, it’s time for players to give their everything. Belief in yourself. They have done all the training and practice but it’s time to be ready mentally for the grand stage," added Renedy.

It's no secret that India are not the bookies' favourite for the tournament. But a lot of eyes will be on the cricket-crazy nation of 1.3 billion, where the beautiful game has always been served the step brother treatment. For players, the moment of reckoning is here. They need to dream big and with determination and some luck, you never know what could happen.

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Updated Date: Jan 04, 2019 13:16:11 IST