ABU DHABI: Underdogs India will look at their impressive results in recent months for inspiration when they open their AFC Asian Cup football campaign against Thailand in Abu Dhabi on Sunday.
With the continental showpiece event being expanded to 24 teams for the first time from the earlier 16, the Indian side have a real chance to make it to the knock-out rounds, which will be a first after their runners-up finish in 1964.
Both in 1984 and 2011, India were knocked out of the tournament at the group stage.
The two top sides from each of the six groups made up of four countries as well as four third-place teams will advance to the Round of 16.
India, playing in their fourth Asian Cup, are entering the tournament on the back of a goal-less stalemates against World Cup-winning Italian coach Marcello Lippi’s China and Oman in the lead-up to the tournament. They lost narrowly (1-2) to Jordan in their third big match ahead of the Asian Cup.
These results were preceded by a 13-match unbeaten run in international friendly matches and the Intercontinental Cup at home last summer.
Constantine’s players will also be keen to improve upon the disastrous performance of the country in 2011 edition, when it badly lost all its group matches.
Sunday’s Group A match against Thailand at the Al Nahyan Stadium will be crucial for India as a positive result will boost the Stephen Constantine-coached team’s chances of making it to the Round of 16.
If India beat Thailand on Sunday, then a draw in the remaining two matches — against hosts UAE (January 10) and Bahrain (January 14) — could be enough for them to qualify for the knock-out round.
Defensive discipline will be one of the key factors for India against a Thailand team that scored a lot of goals at the ASEAN Football Federation Championship.
India are placed 97th in the FIFA charts compared to Thailand’s 118, but rankings will hardly matter in the continental showpiece. In fact, India are the second highest-ranked team in the group after the UAE.
Historically, India and Thailand have played against each other 24 times with the South East Asian nation winning on 12 occasions. India have won five times while the remaining seven were drawn.
But the two sides are more or less unknown quantities as they have played very few matches against each other in recent times. The last time the two sides played against each other was in 2010. Thailand won both matches — 2-1 and 1-0.
The last time India beat Thailand was way back in the 1986 Merdeka Cup in Kuala Lumpur.