India gear up for their biggest challenge in eight years as the first of their three matches at the AFC Asian Cup 2019 sees them face ASEAN powerhouses Thailand.

For a nation which will only be contesting their fourth edition, this tournament is absolutely pivotal in understanding the country’s progress on the international stage.

It could be too early to declare that fortune helped India as it remains to be seen if this version of the Blue Tigers can take advantage of a relatively easier draw in UAE, Bahrain and Thailand.

The lopsided results of a team, which old-timers agree was better than its 2018 iteration on paper, can be explained by the nature of their draw – two World Cup qualifiers and Bahrain’s golden generation which almost qualified for the World Cup.

Conversely, the Bahrain side of 2019 is still very much a threat to the Indian team but not close to their own predecessors. The United Arab Emirates, at home will pose the biggest challenge despite a disjointed performance in a 1-1 opener against Bahrain.

The physicality, organisation and wing-play of the latter, which they displayed in spades against the hosts in the opener are likely to cause India problems. Coupled with the facts that both sides managed a draw against each other, they will look to pick up maximum points against the Blue Tigers in their quest for automatic qualification to the next round.

Thus, it all comes down to India’s opening game against Thailand. The new format of the Asian Cup, ensuring that the best four third-placed teams will go through to the next round means that Stephen Constantine will recognise the War Elephants as his side’s best chance for an entry into the Round of 16.

Thailand did make it through to the final round of World Cup qualifiers, but their form hasn’t been the same since. Having lost their ASEAN crown recently, it is anybody’s guess which Thailand will turn up.

It must be noted that Thailand played without their key players Teerasil Dangda and Chanathip Songkrasin at the AFF Suzuki Cup. Along with Adisak Kraisorn, their pace will keep Indian captain Gurpreet Sandhu and the rest of the defence on their toes.

Stephen Constantine is likely to stick to his tried and tested eleven without pulling any major surprises. Everyone but Jeje Lalpekhlua will be expected to defend as a clean sheet will be first task at hand on Sunday.

Expect Halicharan Narzary and Udanta Singh to be the busiest players on the pitch, dropping deep, helping out their wing-backs, a necessity against the Thais who like to break fast and catch the opposition out.

Pronay Halder and Anirudh Thapa will don the responsibility of shielding the defence. Pronay, senior statesman, will hope to stop all attacks through the middle while the young Thapa will be tasked with recycling the ball and keeping it in the middle of the park while linking up with Sunil Chhetri and Lalpekhlua.

India’s hopes of getting a goal will rest as always, heavily on Chhetri’s shoulders. Constantine’s approach to the game could see the experienced striker playing closer to Jeje, should India see an opportunity against Thailand. Should the Englishman’s approach be defence first, Chhetri could drop deeper in order to work the ball up-field from there.

The obvious out-ball will be the paciest of the eleven, Udanta, and how well India do in the final third could boil down to his delivery. Of the two wingers, Narzary will look to drop deeper, giving the Mizo man from Bengaluru license to go forward more freely.

Most of all, how India does in this tournament could come down to goalkeeper Sandhu and the two men in front of him. Sandesh Jhingan could partner Anas Edathodika or Subhasish Bose should Constantine decide to deploy Narayan Das on the left. There is no doubt that India will spend at least five of their six halves in the UAE on the back-foot and the three forming the defensive spine, the centre-backs and the keeper, will face the biggest challenges of their international career.

Despite all the complaints about style, Constantine’s biggest success has been in making this team sturdier at the back, barring individual errors. If there was any time to display this facet of India’s game, this is it. Thailand, which could presumably be the easiest of India’s opponents will also conversely be their biggest game from a progression point of view. Constantine and India’s approach to this game could very well lay out their plans for this unpredictable group.