The Indian national football team will hope to at least make the knockouts of the Asian Cup 2019 when the competition kicks off on January 5.
India, who qualified for this Asian Cup after eight years, are pooled alongside UAE – the hosts, Thailand and Bahrain.
Qualifying from this group is not impossible but the task will be tricky for India.
Only UAE are ranked above India according to FIFA rankings at the 79th position, 18 spots above India. Thailand are 118th, while Bahrain are five spots above them.
Going by rankings alone, India can qualify as the second-best team from the group.
However, India cannot underestimate the developing threat of Thailand. With Bahrain, they can pull off a result.
Midfielder Pronay Halder says qualifying to the next stage is the first target that India, coached by Stephen Constantine, have set at the moment.
Let’s take a look at all the teams in the group and their qualifying chances –
All the eyes will be on the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to see how well they perform at home. This will add the pressure on them and it remains to be seen if they can cope with it.
After all, UAE finished third in 2015 in Australia and coach Alberto Zaccheroni, who has an impressive CV in Asia and Europe, will want to guide the hosts at least to the semifinals.
The hosts will miss star midfielder Omar Abdulrahman, who is still recuperating from an ACL tear. Abdulrahman, who has had a hand in 43 goals for UAE in 68 appearances, is a big blow for Zaccheroni.
The Italian coach will have to tweak his game philosophy to fill the void left by Abdulrahman. This will give extra responsibility to forwards Ahmed Khalil and Ali Mabkhout.
The team has many stars from Al Ain, which reached the final of the Club World Cup only to lose to Real Madrid. Goalkeeper Khalid Essa, in particular, impressed and the custodian will want to continue making those saves in front of home fans at the Asian Cup.
All coaches try not to rely on a single player but Abdulrahman is one such player that the UAE will be unlucky not to have.
Although the Whites can easily make the next round, the challenge will be to progress beyond that.
Goalkeepers: Ali Khaseif Humaid (Al Jazzira), Khalid Eisa Bilal (Al Ain), Mohamed Hasan Alshamsi (Al Wehda)
Defenders: Walid Abbas Murad (Shabab Alahli Dubai), Khalifa Mubarak Ghanim (Al Nasr), Fares Juma Al Saadi (Al Ain), Bandar Mohamed Al Ahbabi (Al Ain), Khalifa Mubarak Alhammadi (Al Jazzira), Alhasan Saleh Easa (Al Sharjah), Ismail Ahmed Mohamed (Al Ain), Mohamed Ahmad Gharib (Al Ain)
Midfielders: Ali Hassan Ali Salmin (Al Wasl), Amer Abdulrahman Abdulla (Al Ain), Majed Hassan Ahmad (Shabab Alahli Dubai), Khamis Esmaeel Zayed (Al Wasl), Rayan Yaslam Al Jaberi (Al Ain), Ismail Salem Alhammadi (Shabab Alahli Dubai), Mohamed Abdulrahman Alraqi (Al Ain), Saif Rashid Alshemeili (Al Sharjah), Khalfan Mubarak Alshamsi (Al Jazzira)
Forwards: Ali Ahmed Mabkhout (Al Jazzira), Ismaeil Matar Aljneibi (Al Wehda), Ahmed Khalil Aljunaibi (Shabab Alahli Dubai)
Coach: Alberto Zaccheroni (Italy)
Key Players: Khalid Essa, Ali Ahmed Mabkhout, Ahmed Khalil Alunaibi
vs Bahrain on January 5 at 9.30 pm IST
vs India on January 10 at 9.30 pm IST
vs Thailand on January 14 at 9.30 pm IST
The Blue Tigers should consider themselves lucky to have been handed an easy draw in this edition.
Back in 2011, they were pooled alongside two Asian giants – Australia and South Korea – with Bahrain also featuring in Group C. India lost all their three matches, even to Bahrain, and crashed out.
A lot has changed since then. India, ranked 97th, are capable of producing results against other teams in this group like Thailand and Bahrain.
Head coach Stephen Constantine, who is contracted with the national team only up to the end of this tournament, will slog it out to secure his own job.
The coach has been criticised for his tactics of playing a 4-4-2 system, relying on long balls from the defence and crosses from the wingers. Given that India have two short strikers in Sunil Chhetri and Jeje Lalpekhlua, this tactic has rarely seen India score any goals recently.
The coach has been secretive about his game plan, playing the friendly against Oman behind closed doors to avoid his tactics from being leaked.
But one has to only follow the videos of the previous games against China and Jordan to figure out what master tactics are at play.
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu is expected to start ahead of Amrinder Singh despite the latter getting the nod for the friendly against Oman.
Pritam Kotal, Sandesh Jhingan and Narayan Das are three defenders who have sealed their spots in the Playing XI. Constantine will have to figure out whether he’ll play the experienced Anas Edathodika or natural left-back Subhasish Bose as Jhingan’s partner in the central defence.
Halicharan Narzary is not enjoying the best of forms but he will be chosen ahead of Ashique Kuruniyan at the left-wing position. Udanta Singh has been great at the right wing and will definitely be handed a start for India.
The front pair will be Chhetri and Jeje with Balwant Singh and Sumeet Passi assured of game-changing cameos.
India’s progress into the next group depends on whether the shaky defence can maintain its concentration throughout the 90 minutes. Constantine will also hope Jeje can regain his form as the Mizo Sniper has not scored a goal or made an assist so far in the Indian Super League (ISL).
Results against Thailand and Bahrain will determine whether India can make the knockouts of the tournament.
Goalkeepers: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu (JSW Bengaluru FC), Vishal Kaith (FC Pune City), Amrinder Singh (Mumbai City FC)
Defenders: Salam Ranjan Singh (East Bengal), Subhasish Bose (Mumbai City FC), Sarthak Golui (FC Pune City), Sandesh Jhingan (Kerala Blasters), Pritam Kotal (Delhi Dynamos), Narayan Das (Delhi Dynamos), Anas Edathodika (Kerala Blasters)
Midfielders: Germanpreet Singh (Chennaiyin FC), Anirudh Thapa (Chennaiyin FC), Vinit Rai (Delhi Dynamos), Muhammed Ashique Kuruniyan (FC Pune City), Pronay Halder (ATK), Kumam Udanta Singh (JSW Bengaluru FC), Rowllin Borgers (NorthEast United), Jackichand Singh Telem (FC Goa), Halicharan Narzary (Kerala Blasters)
Head coach: Stephen Constantine
Key players: Sunil Chhetri, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Sandesh Jhingan.
vs Thailand on January 6 at 7 pm IST
vs UAE on January 10 at 9.30 pm IST
vs Bahrain on January 14 at 9.30 pm IST
The Southeast Asian giants, known as War Elephants, have a point to prove in the competition.
Thailand failed to defend the AFF Suzuki Cup, crashing out of the competition after losing to Malaysia. They will come into the Asian Cup looking to make the knockouts with results over India in their opener and Bahrain in their second game.
Goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan has been ruled out of the tournament after suffering a foot injury in October. Chatchai Bootprom, who did not have a great AFF Suzuki Cup, will have to step up and make those important saves for the Thais.
Midfielder Chanathip Songkrasin, who was named in J-League’s Best XI for this year, will be their most creative player. Playing for Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo, Songkrasin will give the Indian defence a tough time.
Theerathon and Tristan Do can act as wing-backs, providing the much-needed support for main striker Teerasil.
All said and done, Thailand can definitely progress from this group but their run could come to an abrupt halt in the knockouts.
Goalkeepers: Chatchai Bootprom (BG Pathum United FC), Saranon Anuin (Singha Chiangrai United), Siwarak Tedsungnoen (Buriram United)
Defenders: Theerathon Bunmathan (Muangthong United), Chalermpong Kerdkaew (Nakhon Ratchasima), Adison Promrak (Muangthong United), Pansa Hemviboon (Buriram United), Korrakot Wiriya-Udomsiri (Buriram United), Suphan Thongsong (Suphanburi), Mika Chunuonsee (True Bangkok United), Tristan Do (True Bangkok United)
Midfielders: Sasalak Haiprakhon (Buriram United), Sumanya Purisay (True Bangkok United), Thitiphan Puangjan (BG Pathum United FC), Sanrawat Dechmitr (True Bangkok United), Tanaboon Kesarat (BG Pathum United FC), Chanathip Songkrasin (Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo), Pokklaw A-Nan (True Bangkok United)Advertisem
Forwards: Adisak Kraisorn (Muangthong United), Teerasil Dangda (Muangthong United), Sirod Chatthong (PT Prachuap), Chananan Pombupha (Suphanburi), Supachai Chaided (Buriram United)
Coach: Milovan Rajevac (Serbia)
Key players: Chanathip Songkrasin, Teerasil Dangda, Tristan Do
vs India on January 6 at 7 pm IST
vs Bahrain on January 10 at 4.30 pm IST
vs UAE on January 14 at 9.30 pm IST
The Middle-Eastern country scrapped through the qualifiers to seal their place in the Asian Cup final stages.
The Reds definitely enter this tournament as the underdogs and have a big test in their very first game against the hosts UAE on January 5.
The biggest star in Bahrain is Abdulla Yusuf Helal, who plays in the Czech First League for Bohemians Praha. The forward has notched five goals in 15 appearances for the club and he’s expected to lead the way for Bahrain.
The Reds managed to reach semifinals of the Gulf Cup this year and their good performance in the regional tournament would have given them a lot of confidence ahead of the Asian Cup.
A lot will ride on captain Abdulwahab Ali Alsafi’s form and the creativity that Ali Madan can bring in the midfield.
Bahrain can scrape through the next round if they manage to hold Thailand and stun India in their group games.
Goalkeepers: Sayed Shubbar Alawi (Najma), Yusuf Habib Hasan (Malkiyah), Abdulkarim Fardan Abdulkarim (Riffa)
Defenders: Sayed Mahdi Baqer (Nasr), Waleed Mohamed Alhayam (Muharraq), Hamad Mahmood Alshamsan (Riffa), Ahmed Merza Moosa (Hidd), Ahmed Ali Juma (Muharraq), Sayed Redha Isa (Riffa), Ahmed Mubarak Bughammar (Hidd), Ahmed Abdulla Ali (Najma)
Midfielders: Sayed Dhiya Saeed (Nasr), Abdulwahab Ali Alsafi (Muharraq), Mohamed Jasim Marhoon (Riffa), Ali Jaafar Madan (Najma), Ali Abdula Haram (Riffa), Jasim Ahmed Alshaikh (Ahli), Komail Hasan Alaswad (Riffa), Jamal Rashed Abdulrahman (Muharraq)
Forwards: Mahdi Faisal Alhumaidan (Ahli), Abdulla Yusuf Helal (Bohemians 1905), Mohamed Saad Alromaihi (Manama), Sami Mohamed Alhusaini (East Riffa)
Head Coach: Miroslav Soukup (Czech Republic)
Key players: Abdulwahab Al-Safi, Abdulla Yusuf Helal, Ali Madan
vs UAE on January 5 at 9.30 pm IST
vs Thailand on January 10 at 4.30 pm IST
vs India on January 14 at 9.30 pm IST
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