Abu Dhabi :
If Thailand was big, India are faced with a bigger test in hosts United Arab Emirates in the AFC Asian Cup here Thursday, overcoming whom will require them to play out of their skins. Four days after creating a flutter with a stunning 4-1 drubbing of Thailand, India are now looking an upbeat lot in the continental showpiece. While the result against Thailand, who has three J-League players in their ranks, was no mean feat, it will be a bigger achievement if the Indians are able to put it across the hosts who are gunning for the title. Currently ranked 79th to India's 97th, the United Arab Emirates were placed as high as 24 in the FIFA chart in January 2015.
Coach Stephen Constantine will be pleased with how the second half against Thailand turned out. India not only managed to shut down a lethal Thai attack after being tied 1-1 at the break, but also threatened at the other end through quick transitions in attack. That stupendous show earned India three valuable points, a place on top of the group and a goal average of plus three. "We have a very young side here and they are excited. Of course, hosts UAE will be a different game. They are a very good side but they are just another team standing in our way," said Constantine. As far as the Indian team is concerned, Sunil Chhetri hogs the limelight wherever he goes, and the Blue Tigers will again look up to him upfront.
It will not exactly be appropriate to say that Chhetri will be high on confidence after his double strikes against Thailand, which saw him go past Argentine superstar Lionel Messi in the goal-scoring chart among active international players, because that is an ingredient the Indian talisman never lacked. He is never overconfident, though.
In a team sport like football, a squad heavily dependent on Chhetri would not have experienced a 13-match unbeaten run on way to qualifying for the tournament. Over reliance on the 34-year-old striker would not have seen them maul Thailand the way they did. And that is a good sign for Constantine's team, which will enhance its prospects of qualifying for the second round of the tournament for the first time in over 50 years if it is able to win or at least draw against the UAE.
It is even better for the team that for all his achievements over the years, Chhetri remains grounded.
Minutes after coming off the bench against Thailand, Jeje Lalpekhlua found the back of the net, and so did young Anirudh Thapa. However, the surprise package was rookie forward Ashique Kuruniyan, Udanta Singh being the livewire down wide right. Udanta, in fact, set up a couple of goals including the inch-perfect cross from right flank, which Chhetri slammed home for India's second goal.
Chhetri and the FC Pune City winger had their eyes on goal whenever they were on the ball and the direct running of the latter and the technique and finishing prowess of the former left the opposition's defence helpless. More of the could be expected against a superior opponent in UAE.
India can expect the UAE to come hard at them after a 1-1 stalemate against Bahrain in the tournament opener.
They wouldn't be satisfied with their performances, especially in the attacking third. It was the late goal by substitute Ahmed Khalil that saved them the blushes. Midfielder Ismail Hammadi is also a key player in UAE's scheme of things. UAE will look to dominate the midfield where Anirudh Thapa and Pronay Halder will come up against a tightly-knit unit.
India will also be required to be vigilant at the back as the likes of Ali Mabkhout and 2015 Asian Player of the Year Ahmed Khalil are goal-scorers with predatory instincts in the attacking third. Mabkhout is seven goals shy of becoming UAE's all-time top scorer. The central defensive pairing of Sandesh Jhingan and Anas Edathodika will be kept busy at the back, and so could be goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.
India's grand opening seem to have also left the UAE football association concerned, which has adopted a unique strategy to fill the stands at the stadium with fans of the home team. It has been reported that the UAE FA has purchased 5,000 tickets for the game against India and plans to distribute it only among the local fans on the match day for free to pack the stands with home support.