The stage is set. India will compete against the best of Asia as it begins its quest for continental glory at the AFC Asian Cup 2019. The Blue Tigers will face a stiff opening challenge against an in-form Thailand side at Abu Dhabi's Al Nahyan Stadium on Sunday.
The Indians were the first to arrive in Abu Dhabi and have had a solid two weeks of preparation. The team played a goalless draw in its final friendly against Oman, played behind closed doors. Stephen Constantine's men go into the tie boasting a ranking of 97 as compared to Thailand's 118, but the War Elephants have had a lot more game time leading up to the tournament: they have nine matches since October, while India has played only three (against China, Jordan and Oman) in the same period.
The Indian defence, led by the burly Sandesh Jhingan, will face a stern challenge from the Thai attack that has hammered 19 goals in its last nine games. The potent forward line features the likes of mercurial winger Chanathip Songkrasin and veteran poacher Teerasil Dangda – both of whom ply their trade in the J-League.
India returns to the Asian Cup after eight long years and on the eve of the contest, Constantine stressed that his boys aren't under any pressure and are raring to go. "There is no pressure on us. Four years ago, no one expected us to qualify. After we qualified everyone was thinking that we are going to lose the three games. It’s up to us to prove that we deserve to be here."
The Englishman noted that the team's mindset has changed drastically since he took charge in 2015 and is certain that his side won't be solely intent on defending. "I think the mentality of the team has changed over the years. When I took charge of the team the mentality was to not try to lose by too many goals. I think that has changed in four years. We are now going into every game thinking we can win," he said.
Thailand will head into the tie with the confidence of having beaten India 11 times in their 21 clashes, while India will be eyeing its first victory in the continental showpiece since 1964.