AFC Asian Cup 2019 Group A: India will fancy its chances

India is grouped with host United Arab Emirates, Thailand and Bahrain in Group A of the AFC Asian Cup 2019. The group promises plenty of exciting football with UAE, which finished third in the 2015 edition, the favourite to lead the way.

The Indian football team will begin its AFC Asian Cup 2019 campaign against Thailand on January 6.   -  PTI

India returns to Asia’s biggest footballing platform, the AFC Asian Cup, after an eight-year hiatus. After a disappointing campaign in 2011, which saw the side lose all three matches and concede 13 goals, the Blue Tigers, led by talismanic captain Sunil Chhetri, are raring to go this time around.

The Indians are with host United Arab Emirates, Thailand and Bahrain in Group A. The group promises plenty of exciting football with UAE, which finished third in the 2015 edition, the favourite to lead the way. The Whites boast a line-up of fine talent which will be spearheaded by striker Ali Mabkhout. The 28-year-old was at his absolute best in the previous edition and scored five goals to bag the Golden Boot. He also netted the fastest goal in the tournament’s history, in all of 14 seconds against Bahrain in the group stage. One of the most prolific strikers the Arab nation has ever produced, Ali will be a key player to watch out for.

Ali Mabkhout - who scored five goals in the previous edition - will spearhead the UAE attack.   -  GETTY IMAGES

 

While UAE leads the group in terms of rankings at 79, India holds a superior ranking of 97 as compared to Thailand and Bahrain — which are ranked 113 and 118 respectively. However, India is found wanting when it comes to match practice. Stephen Constantine’s men have played 11 international competitive games this year, including the Intercontinental Cup in June and the SAFF Cup in September. The team has played just three games since October.

In stark contrast, Thailand has played eight games between October and early December, UAE has figured in six matches between September and November and Bahrain has to its tally five matches in the same period. The acute lack of match practice and the fact that neither of the two friendlies went in its favour could be a worrying aspect for India. The tie against China saw India ride its luck to force a goalless draw, while the game against Jordan — which the side lost 2-0 — proved to be a futile exercise as many senior players missed out owing to injuries and logistical issues.

Talisman: Sunil Chhetri, the Indian skipper, brings a lot to the playing arena.   -  AFP

 

On the other hand, a team that doesn’t have any game-time concerns going into the contest is Thailand — which is making a comeback to the tournament after 12 years. The War Elephants will arrive in the Emirates having been undefeated in seven of their last eight matches, including comprehensive wins over Indonesia and Singapore. Coached by Serbian Milovan Rajevac, Thailand will be eager to capitalise on its unbeaten streak and progress to the knockout stage for the first time in 47 years.

Bahrain has been a regular feature over the last four editions but has struggled to get past the group stage since 2004, when the side went on to claim the fourth spot. Czech manager Miroslav Soukup took charge of the team in 2016 with an aim to end its slump at international events and will look to get going at the AFC Asian Cup. Under his guidance, The Reds have lost only six of their last 30 matches.

The Bahrainis will begin their campaign to what is expected to be a packed stadium against UAE at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City Stadium on January 5. It will be a chance for the side to exact revenge for the 2-1 loss it suffered against UAE in the group stage in 2015. Bahrain will face another familiar foe in India in its final group game on January 14. Interestingly, the two sides had clashed on the same date back in 2011, Bahrain winning 5-2.

With home side UAE bound to progress, Group A will witness a fierce battle between the other three nations to seal the second spot and claim a berth in the knockouts. Going by recent form, Thailand poses a strong threat and could be seen as likely to advance, but a resurgent Bahrain and a hungry-looking India could spring a surprise.

India is grouped with host United Arab Emirates, Thailand and Bahrain in Group A. The group promises plenty of exciting football with UAE, which finished third in the 2015 edition, the favourite to lead the way.

Group A Fixtures

5 January: UAE vs Bahrain

6 January: India vs Thailand

10 January: Bahrain vs Thailand, UAE vs India

14 January: UAE vs Thailand, India vs Bahrain