Could India spring a surprise at the AFC Asian Cup?
When India last played the AFC Asian Cup in 2011, they were level with their opponents for a total of 17 minutes across three matches. Is 2019 and their return to the elite Asian fold going to be any different? Or should some of the ground realities be considered when setting expectations from Stephen Constantine's team?
India, ranked at a 22-year-high of 97, are the 15th-best in Asia, which technically puts them in sight of a round-of-16 place in the 24-team event in the UAE. Fact is, this is just their fourth outing at the Asian Cup -- and they have failed to win a single game in their two appearances since a runners-up finish in 1964.
India were one of the first teams to book their berth through Asian Cup qualification, with three wins on the bounce in 2017 against Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan and Macau. That had been preceded by a horrendous 2018 World Cup qualification campaign, where their only win in eight matches came at home against Guam.
With an average age at a little over 24 years, India will be the third-youngest squad in the UAE. But that also means relative inexperience -- with only two Indians, strikers Sunil Chhetri and Jeje Lalpekhlua, with 30 or more caps -- and their group comprises teams with six (Bahrain, ranked 113, and Thailand, ranked 118) and 13 (hosts UAE, ranked 79) such players. India have only one outright win against any of these teams this century -- against the UAE in a World Cup qualifier in Bangalore in 2001.
All down to Chhetri?
Chhetri -- a man with 65 goals from 104 caps for India, two of them being the three the team scored at the 2011 edition in Qatar -- will play the biggest role. "They [the 2011 team] had a long training stint and they were better prepared but the opponents they faced [South Korea, Australia and Bahrain] were much more difficult," says former national team director Shaji Prabhakaran, who reckons India's brightest chance this time lies against Bahrain. "Chhetri has become the biggest change from then and now."
While the reliance on Chhetri could increase because of the woeful form of his strike partner Jeje -- the Chennaiyin forward has zero goals, zero assists and just seven shots from 11 Indian Super League (ISL) appearances this season -- former India international Henry Menezes believes the team can pull together for the big occasion. "We talk of Chhetri playing off his position, Jeje coming in without enough match time or Balwant [Singh] getting in without enough luck with finding goals, but it's a different ball game when playing for India," he says. "There are players who can lead across different positions, but Chhetri is the man to lead the team."
Perhaps the biggest question will be how to make the most of the midfield, an area where India have lacked stability, especially since the loss of Eugeneson Lyngdoh's form and fitness over the last couple of years.
In their last friendly against Oman on December 27, Constantine fielded Pronay Halder and Anirudh Thapa in the middle, with Halicharan Narzary and Udanta Singh operating along the flanks. Menezes believes India's best bet will be to crowd the midfield and maintain discipline with their shape. With the pace of Udanta and Narzary, there could be opportunities to punish defences on the break, though Prabhakaran believes the constant chopping and changing of personnel in midfield has been one of the weaknesses of this team.
"When you knew in September 2017 that you will be playing the Asian Cup in January 2019, you needed to know which player will deliver for you at an important competition," he says. "The core of the team kept changing, except for Chhetri, Jeje and [goalkeeper] Gurpreet Sandhu." Constantine handed out debuts to 27 players since the start of Asian Cup qualification in March 2017 -- 10 of those players are part of the 23-member squad in the UAE.
Grit, lots of defending
When India played the Asian Cup in 2011, goalkeeper Subrata Pal drew praise for his performance under the bar, and you can expect his successor, Gurpreet -- who was also part of that squad, just like Chhetri -- to be a busy man as well.
Prabhakaran thinks India's best chance to advance is to stay compact against Thailand, getting a positive result and then moving for the kill against Bahrain in their third game. Menezes thinks while the Indian squad is short on experience, their stints with ISL clubs playing alongside names like Tim Cahill, Diego Forlan, Lucio and Florent Malouda means they should be able to handle the nerves of the big occasion.
While it is true that India's rise in FIFA rankings has been helped by wins against teams such as Chinese Taipei, Puerto Rico, Laos and Pakistan, they have also held China (ranked 76) and Oman (ranked 82) to goalless draws in two of their last three matches -- an indication of how difficult they can be to break down.
"India has always sprung surprises and now is the time to deliver," says Menezes. "Forget about all the negativity. We just go out into the field and play."