India aim to create history when they take on yet another strong opponents in Bahrain in their third and final Group A match of the AFC Asian Cup 2019 football tournament here on Monday.
If India do manage to enforce a favourable result, it will be their first entry into the second round since the knockout stages were introduced.
India’s best result at Asian football’s showpiece event came in 1964 when they finished runners-up to hosts Israel. But that was a four-nation tournament with a round robin format.
The Indian team under coach Stephen Constantine have been a revelation at the ongoing tournament. They have surprised fans, critics and rivals with their spirited performances in their first two matches.
The perennial underdogs have well and truly lived up to their nickname ‘Blue Tigers’ by asking tough questions of much higher rated teams in a tough Group A despite their technical and tactical limitations.
They stunned Thailand 4-1 thanks to a strong second half performance and outplayed hosts United Arab Emirates (UAE) before their inability to convert the half a dozen chances they created came back to haunt them in a 0-2 defeat.
Presently placed 97th in the FIFA rankings, the Indians will definitely fancy their chances against Bahrain, specially given their form against Thailand and UAE. But it will not be an easy task as Bahrain have the quality to beat the Indians.
Even a defeat may see the Indians make the cut if they do not concede too many goals. According to the rules, the top two teams from each of the six groups will enter the round of 16 along with four of the best third placed nations.
If both India and Thailand lose their last group matches, the men in blue will be the third team in Group A due to a better head to head record.
In such a scenario, a favourable goal difference than the other third placed teams may see India through.
Bahrain will be more desperate to win since they are at the last place in the Group A standings with a single point from two matches. They had held held UAE 1-1 in their campaign opener before losing 0-1 to Thailand.
Although both UAE and Bahrain have similar playing styles, the latter’s direct style may prove to be easier to read for the Indian defenders.
One of biggest strength of the Indian players is their excellent fitness and speed on the counter. Since Bahrain need to win at all costs, they will have to play a more attacking game than usual which may open up space at the back for the fast Indian counter-attacks.
Monday’s game will also be an opportunity for India to avenge the 2-5 defeat to Bahrain on January 14, 2011 in the Asian Cup in Qatar. Eight years on, India gear up to take on Bahrain on the same day.
Indian skipper Sunil Chhetri, currently the second-highest goal scorer in international football among active players, had scored India’s second goal in that match. He will definitely aim for an encore on Monday.
Apart from Chhetri, the sole member of the current Indian squad to have a taste of the 2011 edition is goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. But that time, with then top choice custodian Subrata Paul in peak form, Gurpreet had to watch from the bench.
“I remember everyone was very calm before the Bahrain game. We believed that we could get a result from that game. We even managed to score a couple of goals. But unfortunately, we ended up losing,” Gurpreet said.
“Eight years down the line we are back in the Asian Cup playing Bahrain again. Things are different, the teams are different. But we are in a better situation.”
While the likes of Chhetri and Gurpreet were sweating it off in Doha there was another crop of young guns, who at that point, were merely dreaming of greater things to come in their lives.
“I remember I had tears in my eyes that day, and made one of those crazy promises that you make as a kid — I’m going to play for India one day and bring glory. But here I am today, ready to play against them tomorrow,” central defender Sandesh Jhingan said.
“It’s hard to believe, sometimes. Even if God came down and told me to write down my future eight years back, I would not have believed that I would be here, and facing Bahrain on this very day.”
Young defender Subhasish Bose has only broken into the squad some six months ago. However, eight years back, he was just like any other young fan, watching his heroes in action against the best teams in Asia.
And like any other kid, he also yearned to avenge the defeat that was inflicted on his heroes, who had played their hearts out that fateful night.
“I was watching the Bahrain game with my dad. We were both disappointed on losing the match, but now we have the chance to get our revenge for that defeat,” Bose said.