Updated: Apr 17
The Blue Tigers are set to make their 4th appearance at the AFC Asian Cup and their first since 2011 on Sunday. India have never won a game since the legendary 1964 edition when we finished runners-up under unorthodox circumstances (we only won 2 games). History, is therefore, against Constantine's men as they go into their first big tournament in 8 years.
India are up against the host nation, the United Arab Emirates, Southeast Asian Giants, Thailand and familiar foe Bahrain. The UAE are the only team ranked above India in the group, but, it would be a decent achievement if we managed to stay off the bottom. All 3 teams can be dangerous on their day, but, they also have weaknesses that can be exploited.
United Arab Emirates
The hosts come into the tournament under tremendous pressure, with fans expecting the team to challenge for the trophy. They are famous for playing a patient, possession game and will most likely line-up in a 4-3-3. The heartbeat of the team, and the player whose pace and trickery would have most hurt a team like India - Omar Abdulrahman, is out injured. The inability of our midfield to hold their positions would have made it easy pickings for a player that likes to play in between the lines like Omar does.
The UAE play narrow and slow, so while we may not see too much of the ball, it should play into our deep set defence. You can also expect them to push up and try to constrict the pitch and leave space behind the defence that can be exploited. The best we can hope for is still a draw as their quality far outweighs our own. They played 12 games in 2018 and won only 2, but most of the games were against South American opposition.
The War Elephants have the coolest nickname in the tournament, but beyond that nobody really knows what to expect. The Kings of Southeast Asia gave up their AFF crown recently, after a semi-final defeat to Malaysia. Thailand are known for trying play an expansive game, with both full backs bombing on and staying high, which could again be a good sign for Indian on the counter attack. Thailand lost to Oman last night, a team that India didn't do too badly against in the recent past. I hate to make that argument, but....
Chanathip Songkrasin is widely tipped to be one of the players of the tournament and on his day he could wreck havoc like Sarpreet Singh or Zemlianukhin did to the Blue Tigers. New coach, Milovan Rajevac, was brought in for his defensive attitude, but it does not seem to be working. Keep Chanthip quiet and we could steal a win or, at least, avoid defeat. This game is probably the Blue Tigers' best shot at 3 points.
Bahrain have been in somewhat of a decline over the last few years. but their form coming into this tournament is scintillating. There was a loss to Oman (who else?) but they have won their last 3 games scoring 10 and conceding none. This is a dangerous Bahrain side but they are prone to individual mistakes and. do not have any standout stars. They are still, in reputation at least, one of the better West Asian sides.
It remains to be seen how good they are on the ball, but like UAE, this is another solid defence that we will struggle to penetrate. They beat us 5-2 in the last edition but this might be one of those games, where a set piece or mistake could seal the result.
Just including results from the past 2 years, here are the final finish probabilities. Thailand are really bad at keeping the ball out of their own net and have had a few questionable results over this period. Their finish probabilities are therefore slightly underestimated, whereas, India have beaten the likes of Cambodia and Macau away from home, and over-estimated their goalscoring and conceding prowess.
Thailand's dip in form has coincided with a resurgence from Bahrain, who are likely to finish in the second automatic qualification spot behind the UAE.
So, the hosts and Bahrain are favorites to qualify and it'll probably come down to goals conceded between India and Thailand. My last set of predictions said something completely different, but the common theme is India have a solid chance of finishing third.
I never thought I'd say it, but our style of play lends itself to having a better GD and therefore if we play very, very well, we might be in with a chance of getting through in one of the "best third place team" slots.
The only questions in terms of personnel are if a resurgent Amrinder has done enough to knock of Gurpreert Singh Sandh in goal and if out-of-form Jeje is still the team's first choice #9. Ashique Kuruniyan is in excellent form and his pace and trickery MIGHT get him a spot ahead of Halicharan Narzary.
As always, feedback welcome @sgtsaltnpeppa.