The 17th edition of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) is onto us with as many as 24 teams participating in the continental showpiece.
India have been drawn in Group A alongside hosts United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Thailand.
The Blue Tigers have not been in their best form entering the prestigious tournament, having drawn matches against China and Oman before losing 2-1 against Jordan.
It will be an exciting contest with UAE starting as the early favourites from the Group A. It is expected that there will be a close fight between India, and Thailand, Bahrain.
AFC Asian Cup: Indian Predictions
India returns to the competition for the fourth time in their football history. (They have been out of the competition since the 2011 edition when they endured a group-stage exit.)
India has been the powerhouses on the Asian football map, being the runners-up in the 1964 AFC Asian Cup. However, ever since, it has been an unfortunate fall of grace for India, having been ranked as low as 173 in 2015.
Ever since that low, they have made swift progress under English manager Stephen Constantine. India enters the tournament with a ranking back among the top 100 at 97. In fact, they are the second-highest ranked team of the group behind hosts UAE who are placed 70th.
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However, the team better know that the rankings do not tell the entire story. Even though UAE is considered to be the Group A favourites based on both the rankings and the home advantage, India is more than capable to make the progress ahead of Bahrain and Thailand.
A big advantage for them will be the provision that allows the four best third-placed teams to make it to the knockout stages as well.
For the qualification for the 2019 edition of the competition, India, like Bahrain, had booked their place after topping their group in the 3d round. A glaring weakness for them is their inability to score goals, especially in the last few matches. The responsibility of scoring goals is disparagingly taken only by Sunil Chhetri, who ended the year as one of the world’s top active scorers.
Nonetheless, they have displayed a sublime defensive prowess of late after shutting against China and Oman before going down to a narrow 1-2 defeat to Jordan.
Apart from Sunil Chhetri, the one player that they will be banking the most is Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. The blazing goalkeeper has had a big role in keeping the clean sheets for India lately.
India’s first AFC match will be against Thailand at 7 pm (IST) on 6 January.