The anticipation and suspense over the final draw of the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 were finally concluded on Friday (May 4, 2018) at Armani Hotel Ballroom at the iconic Burj Khalifa in Dubai. India would be thanking their lucky stars as they find themselves in a relatively less competitive Group A along with host UAE, South East Asian powerhouse Thailand and Bahrain.
Top twenty-four teams from Asia were pooled in six groups having four teams each who will play each other once and eventually top two teams from each group will proceed to the knockouts. UAE is the highest FIFA ranked team in the group placed at 81 while India technically is placed above Thailand at 122 and Bahrain at 116.But FIFA rankings are not always reflective of a teams performance leading up to the tournament.
So here lies the big question: Can India qualify from Group A?
India would be definitely fancying their chances from Group A, Indian Coach Steven Constantine has said “I think it’s a group from where we can qualify to the knock-out stage. I won’t say it’s an easy group but we have the ability to win against some of these teams and on our day, we can beat most of them,”
So here lies the paradox of uncertainty when Steven Constantine says “on our day” as understandably India needs to be at their lethal best to be able to compete at the big stage in Asia facing quality teams like UAE who can wear-down opposition chasing the ball or teams like Thailand who can take the opposition by surprise with energy and fast tempo to the game .On the hand, Bahrain can be a tricky and unpredictable side on the day.
Now let’s analyse India’s oppositions from Pool A.
The hosts will be a strong contender in the competition as the Alberto Zaccheroni managed side will be playing in familiar conditions in front of their home support and almost a certainty to make it to the knockouts.The attacking duo Ahmed Khalil and Ali Mabkhout will be a lethal threat to opposition along with talented Al-Ain midfielder Omar Abdulrahman.But UAE had a poor run of form in 2018 winning just 1 game in Gulf Cup against Iran on penalties while losing 3 including 2 matches in King’s Cup against Gabon and Slovakia.
But UAE will be a transformed element at home and India will need to be at the top of their game to keep the attacking trio of Kahlil, Mabkhout and Abdulrahman at bay.The attacks will be relentless and India should look to concede as less as possible in case goal difference comes into factor.
Thailand is very much an unknown element outside ASEAN zone but they have the same squad that drew 2-2 against a strong Iraq side back in 2016 in a World Cup Qualification game in the first round while pulling off another 2-2 draw against mighty Socceroos at home in November 2016.
With quality players like Teerasil Dangda and Chanathip Songkrasin coming off rich J-League experience alongside Tristan Do and Theerathon Bunmathan, they could be a handful for the other teams in the Group A with their individual quality and direct vertical playing style to penetrate opposition backline.
Thailand’s T1 season usually gets over by November so the players would be coming off a good recovery and rest going into the Championship, unlike India where the players would be virtually jaded by the demanding travelling schedule of Indian Super League unless the Federation decides otherwise.
The Miroslav Soukoup coached side had a comparatively easy qualification group in the AFC Asian Cup where they managed to win 4, drew 1 and lost 1 out of six games.Bahrain suffered a shock away defeat to Chinese Taipei in the qualifiers.In the 23rd Gulf Cup Bahrain lost out to Oman in the knock out stage after qualifying from Group B with 1 win and 2 draws from 3 games.A lot will depend on 29-year-old forward Jamal Rashid and Sami Al-Husaini but inconsistency and lack of International friendlies is a major concern for Bahrain side.
The Indian team has a good balance of young players like Udanta Singh, Lalruathhara, Lalrinzuala Chhangte and Subhasish Bose along with experienced pro’s like Sunil Chhetri, JeJe and Sandesh Jhingan.But the Federation needs to arrange a preparatory camp with players coming from various ISL/I-league teams playing under different tactical formations of Coaches. The players should be given adequate time to develop coordination and uniform tactical playing style under Coach Stephen Constantine.
The National team players need to be given adequate break from ISL duties to come off fresh and not fatigued or picking up niggles from gruelling ISL schedule to hit the stride from the first game in order to compete against the quality of UAE, fast tempo of Thailand and physically strong opponents like Bahrain.
AIFF needs to plan few friendlies against tougher opponents leading up to the finals of AFC Asian Cup to fine tune the playing co-ordination, tactical shape and understanding among the players.
At UAE, India will have decent support from the strong Indian community abroad.If India can find a perfect balance, playing compact football, making fewer mistakes defensively and making use of the scoring opportunity, The Blue Tigers can definitely ruffle a few feathers and make it to the knock-outs.