“We have finally got respect for Indian football, we have woken the sleeping giant.” Those were the words of a jubilant India football coach Stephen Constantine who was speaking with ESPN after the thrilling 4-1 win over Thailand in the opening match of AFC Asian Cup in Dubai. And why not, it WAS India’s biggest win in the Asia Cup.
Not only their disappointing performances in the tournament’s history, but their dismal form of late was also a cause of worry as India entered into their first group match against Thailand.
Even though there is a gap of 21 places in both the nation’s rankings, Thailand were expected to be anything but an easy opponent for the Blue Tigers to surmount.
The Thailand side was boosted by the return of Teerasil Dangda and Chanathip Songkrasin returned to the Thailand side after the success of 2018 AFF Championship when they had scored as many as 17 goals in six matches. Contrastingly, India had a big struggle in front of the goal in the past year.
India vs UAE: The Prediction
However, in their first Asian game in over eight years, they displayed an all-around performance. They were technical sound in the midfield and rock solid in the defence as usual. But what surprised everyone was the attacking threat that India showed going forward.
— #AsianCup2019 (@afcasiancup) January 9, 2019
Sunil Chhetri and Ashique Kuruniyan coupled brilliantly on multiple occasions. India not only won the match effortlessly but also put four past the Thai. The result, along with the draw between UAE and Bahrain meant that India is at the top of the group with 3 points.
Nonetheless, the road only gets tougher for the Blue Tigers from here on with hosts and superiorly ranked UAE up next.
The United Arab Emirates is placed 18 places higher than India in the FIFA World Rankings. Speaking about its football achievements, UAE has done something that India have only hoped for– qualifying for the FIFA World Cup in 1990 (It missed the 2018 FIFA World Cup spot by just 3 points). The Middle Eastern country regular feature in the AFC Asian Cup and thus boast of a far superior experience. In fact, they were the runner-ups in the 1996 edition of the competition. On the other hand, it will be just the fourth time that India is competing in the tournament.
The two countries have met on 13 occasions previously, with India losing eight of those and managing only two wins. The last meeting between the two came on the eve of a FIFA World Cup qualifying match in 2011. Then, the contest had ended in a 2-2 draw.
Nonetheless, India may still have a chance of at least getting a draw out of the contest, since the AFC Asia Cup 2019 tournament has not started well for UAE.
The host’s strikers could rarely penetrate Bahrain’s impeccable defence. The Bahrain team came in with a plan of drawing out a plan from the fixture and were successful in the same. UAE almost lost the contest 1-0, had it not been for a late penalty by the 2015 Asian Player of the Year Ahmed Khalil.
The aftermath of the draw was that Alberto Zaccheroni’s position as UAE’s coach suddenly became questionable. He had left out captain Esmail Mattar in what felt like a curious team selection.
— #AsianCup2019 (@afcasiancup) January 10, 2019
It goes without saying that this turbulence around the host’s performances presents a golden opportunity for India. They look more confident, and more importantly, they have the momentum with them going forward.
Everyone, right from Chhetri to Kuruniyan to the super-sub Jeje Lalpekhlua have shown signs of brilliance in attack. Udanta Singh and Anirudh Thapa have played well on the wings while the defence remains their strong point. Winning a match against UAE might be tricky, but not an impossible task for an in-form Indian team.