A win. That’s what India had failed to achieve between 1964 and 2019. That barrier was crossed convincingly against Thailand in their first match of the AFC Asian Cup.
Four goals. That’s what Stephen Constantine’s men scored to send the War Elephants packing. It might be a single victory but it also puts India in a strong position to make it to the next round, given that four out of six third-placed teams will make it through.
The Blue Tigers will face a different test against the hosts United Arab Emirates, but Constantine has shown that he is willing to take a chance or two.
Against Thailand, Constantine made quite a few tweaks to the team that we’ve seen throughout the qualifying campaign for the Asian Cup. Going into the match, Jeje Lalpekhlua was a man in poor form showing his rustiness against China and in the Indian Super League. The Englishman’s first task at hand was to organise an attacking unit against a Thai team there for the taking. Ashique Kuruniyan was tasked with being the replacement for the Mizo sniper and an useful asset on the counter.
The Pune City player did just that and won a few headers, with the ball falling to Sunil Chhetri and Udanta Singh helping them keep it better and launch instant attacks. Kuruniyan’s pace sat well with the rest of the attack while Thailand helped the Indian cause by moving the ball slower even as the attack was clinical in finishing the chances that came their way.
UAE will play much tighter at the back than Thailand. But Bahrain, who troubled them to no end, have given Constantine a glimpse of what can be done.
Alberto Zaccheroni’s team left spaces behind their defence for the Bahraini wingers to exploit and it could be Udanta’s time to step up against the hosts. The man who started on the other wing, Holicharan Narzary continues to prove his services to the defensive cause.
Against Thailand, he made the back four a temporary five or slotted in next to Pronay Halder and Anirudh Thapa to put three bodies in the midfield. India played a pressing line higher than what has been observed during Constantine’s reign.
UAE are a different proposition to Thailand and they could be out to break the lines of defence by playing it into the channels. Against Bahrain, they were sloppy and a controversial penalty call saved their blushes on opening day. Ali Mabhkout didn’t register against Bahrain but India will present another chance for him to notch up his first goal of this tournament. With Ahmed Khalil coming off the bench in his 100th game to bury the equalising penalty, the UAE certainly have depth in attack.
Milovan Rajevac’s firing had underscored the importance of Thailand’s opening match against India. Both teams had underlined that fixture as the one to target for progression. By that measure, India have reached ground zero by getting three points into the bag.
UAE, due to a mixture of finishing third in 2015 and by virtue of being hosts, had a boat-load of pressure on their shoulders. An unconvincing 1-1 draw on opening night heaped a whole lot more. At the very least, a semi-final finish at home is expected and topping the group to get an easy draw in the knock-outs is a part of the plan.
Coming into this match, Zaccheroni’s men still need two wins out of their remaining two encounters to safely win their group. Elite teams thrive on pressure, the rest crumble. UAE, despite being overwhelming favourites for this tie, may not find it easy as the rest of the heavyweights have experienced in the first round of matches.
For India, the pressure’s off as far as expectations go. Their first game performance has almost guaranteed a fourth game in the Asian Cup, which would have been top of the agenda. Constantine did say that India weren’t getting carried away with the result, but how he sets up his team will be interesting.
The hosts’ reputation will precede them and Constantine might put his eggs in the Bahrain basket. On the other hand, the confidence coursing through Indian veins is at an all-time high. The India coach might just benefit from aiming for the points against UAE. The hosts are the gold standard in the group, but Constantine hasn’t brought the handbrakes out just yet.