Asian Cup 2019: Group A preview - UAE, India, Thailand, Bahrain
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.
ALSO SEE: Squads of all 24 teams
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.
They will then take it from there.
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
ALSO SEE: Average ages of all squads
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