India’s defeat against the hosts United Arab Emirates means that all hopes of a smooth progression now rest upon the final game against Bahrain.
The top two teams of each group and the four best third-placed teams advance to the round of 16. As things stand, India are on three points and will still have a mathematical chance of going through to the next round despite a defeat. But Constantine and his men will not want to leave it to that.
A passage to the Round of 16 will be a welcome bonus for India given the way that the group has shaped up. If Thailand lose to UAE in their final round match (which begins at the same time as India’s game) they will also end up on three points but will end up below India on head-to-head criteria. A draw against Bahrain will take India to four points and a place in the last 16 but a defeat will mean that they will be equal on three points with the War Elephants.
Given that India hadn’t won a match in 55 years, Constantine can be reasonably satisfied that his team is still in contention for the next round on the final match-day.
Bahrain have goals in them
Bahrain’s two matches have promised a lot but failed to deliver. They started off their tournament well, managing a 1-1 draw against the hosts in a game which they could have won.
A contentious penalty decision which went against them late in the game saw them drop two points on opening day but Miroslav Soukup will have been impressed by what he saw from his team. The attackers got in behind UAE full-backs and stretched the home defence to good effect.
The West Asians have goals in them, as a 5-0 win over Tajikistan and a 4-0 drubbing of South Korea in the run-up to the tournament have shown. The wastefulness in front of goal has Soukup worried but he is likely to persist with Mohamed Al-Romahi, Jamal Rashed and Ali Madan up front.
The Indian full-backs, Subhasish Bose and Pritam Kotal could be the most important men on the pitch for Constantine. Their handling of the spaces in behind the defensive line, a cause of concern against the UAE, is vital to keeping this Bahrain side from scoring a goal.
The two midfielders in front of the defence, Pronay Halder and Anirudh Thapa, will be expected to sweep up deep in midfield. The hosts UAE turned the game around by launching balls from a distance, so will Constantine have Halder and Thapa push further forward to exert pressure? His answer of this question could very well decide this game.
No changes expected
India’s previous two games have yielded largely satisfactory results, and it is a strong possibility that the line-up will remain unchanged for the third Asian Cup game in a row.
The biggest tactical tweak has obviously been the deployment of Ashique Kuruniyan up front, and that has brought mixed results.
The Pune City man looked jaded at the end of the UAE game, and his pace has the ability to cause troubles but will he have the legs to run flat out against Bahrain? Jeje Lalpekhlua’s introduction slowed the game down considerably but Constantine will surely not start the Mizo sniper in a game where he still has to try and pick up a point.
Kuruniyan’s running has allowed Sunil Chhetri to operate on the edges, picking his moments, taking his own time and pace, linking well with Udanta running on the outside. It has essentially been these three channelling all of India’s attacks, leaving Halicharan Narzary on the other flank to contribute more defensively. Narzary was sacrificed for Jeje against the UAE and he is likely to be in a similar position, should India go behind against Bahrain.
One has to wonder if either of Jackichand Singh, Balwant Singh or Sumeet Passi will be involved at some point of time, given that Constantine has those options at his disposal. The defence and Anas Edathodika in particular made a couple of errors and were punished for them but Constantine will opt against changing the back four or the keeper Gurpreet Sandhu.
Rowllin Borges could be the one change that Constantine opts for in the form of fresh legs. He is likely to be substituted in late on, irrespective of whether India chase or lead the game. India are in control of their own fate heading into the final game, but they will have to hold their nerve against an opponent who beat them 5-2 eight years ago.