A heartbreaking loss after a stunning win denting their confidence, India will still be fired up by the prospect of a maiden knock-out round berth when they take on Bahrain in their final Asian Cup group league match here on Monday.
A draw against the West Asian side, currently ranked 113, will be enough for India (ranked 97) to qualify for the round of 16 for the first time in the continent’s showpiece event after failed attempts in 1984 and 2011.
Monday’s match at the Sharjah Stadium, which may turn out to be the biggest night of Indian football after its achievements during the Golden Years (1951 to 64), is also significant as talismanic skipper Sunil Chhetri will equal former captain Bhaichung Bhutia’s record of highest appearances for the country at 107 each.
India had finished runners-up in the 1964 edition in Israel but that tournament was played in a round-robin format comprising four countries with the winners being decided on the basis of points collected in the league. There was not a single knock-out match in that edition.
But even a defeat on Monday may still see India (3 points from 2 matches) through to the knock-out rounds as one of the four third-placed teams if hosts United Arab Emirates (4 from 2 matches) beat Thailand (3 from 2 matches) in Al Ain in the other Group A match to be played simultaneously.
Four third-placed sides from the six groups of four team each will also advance to the knock-out rounds, along with the top two countries.
Under the competition rules of the Asian Cup, if two teams end their group stage engagements on equal points, the ranking will be decided first on the basis of head to head result.
So, if both Thailand and India lose their matches on Monday, India will end at third as they have defeated the ‘War Elephants’ 4-1 in their opening match.
But the Stephen Constantine side cannot lose to Bahrain — to whom India lost 2-5 in the 2011 Asian Cup — by a big margin as goal difference will get the first preference while deciding which team makes it to the Round of 16 among third place sides of equal points.
In Groups C and D, two bottom-placed teams have not yet opened their accounts after playing two matches each and they have minus goal difference as against India’s plus one.
Courtesy, the stunning win against Thailand has shown that India are no longer an ‘also ran’ side and the second match against the UAE — though lost 0-2 — strengthened the thought that this side can hold onto their own without fear and take the game to the opposition, unlike the teams of the past.
Luck also eluded India in the match against UAE as the woodwork denied them on two occasions while Ashique Kuruniyan and Chhetri had the goalkeeper at their mercy but failed to beat him. India had more shots at opposition goal though UAE had the overwhelming possession.
Constantine has built India into a compact and largely defensive unit which tries to score on the counter. The team largely maintained it shape and intensity in the first two matches against Thailand and UAE.
The lack of creativity in the midfield as compared to other top sides was, however, evident and a lot will depend on Chhetri, who has become the highest Indian goal scorer in the Asian Cup (with four strikes) as well as second highest international goal scorer (67 from 106 matches) among active players.
India may again deploy a defensive approach and hit on the counter against a physical Bahrain as they need just a draw while it is a must-win for the West Asian side as they are with just one point from two matches after their 0-1 loss to Thailand.
The Thais defended deep in the first half against Bahrain and hit on the counter and the ‘War Elephants’ were able to get a second half goal. So, it is not beyond India’s reach to get a favourable result against Bahrain.
Constantine fielded the same starting eleven in both against Thailand and UAE in a 4-4-2 formation and it will have to be seen whether he does the same against Bahrain. The central defender duo of Sandesh Jhingan and Anas Edathodika largely marshalled the back-line well so far but there were periods of lack of understanding between them which led to the two goals by UAE.
The head coach is unlikely to make changes at the heart of the defence as well as in the upfront duo of Chhetri and Kuruniyan. However, Constantine may try out Balwant Singh at some point in time considering the physicality of the Bahrain side.
Jeje Lapekhlua has been the preferred forward for Constantine to come in as substitute.
Rowlin Borges is an option for Pranoy Halder in the role of a defensive midfielder while attacking midfielder Anirudha Thapa was a bit subdued against UAE. Right winger Udanta Singh was brilliant in the match against Thailand as he was involved in three goals and he was denied by the crossbar against UAE as well.
Historically, India have won just one match against Bahrain in seven matches played so far between the two countries. That win (2-0) had come in an international friendly in Bahrain in October, 1979 with striker Shabir Ali scoring both the goals.
Bahrain have won on five occasions win while one match had ended in a draw.