Abu Dhabi, January 5: India are back among the continent’s elite after eight years and will look to remind everyone that they can measure up to the challenge as they open their much-awaited AFC Asian Cup 2019 campaign against Thailand at the Al Nahyan Stadium in Abu Dhabi on Sunday (January 6).
Difficult challenges, though, await Stephen Constantine's team in Group A where they are drawn alongside Thailand, Bahrain and hosts UAE.
Sunday’s opponents, Thailand, are in red-hot goalscoring form and the Blue Tigers will be required to keep things tight at the back with the focus on goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and the defence led by Sandesh Jhingan.
"There is no pressure on us. Four years ago, no one expected us to qualify. After we qualified everyone was thinking that we are going to lose the three games. It’s up to us to prove that we deserve to be here.” said Constantine.
He added, "I think the mentality of the team has changed over the years. When I took charge of the team the mentality was to not try to lose by too many goals. I think that has changed in four years. We are now going into every game thinking we can win."
Talking about the South-East Asian opponents, the Briton commented, "Thailand are technically very good and they have got a number of very good players. They are in top form. They run around a lot and they interchange very well."
Constantine will be confident of a good defensive display by his team against a side who have scored 17 goals in their last six competitive matches. The draws against China and Oman in friendlies ahead of the Asian Cup were encouraging with Anas Edathodika and Jhingan forming an able pairing at the back.
Gurpreet Sandhu, who attended the pre-match conference, said, "We are not an easy team to play against. We will try to be positive and stay consistent in the group stages, forget what happened in the past and take it from there."
Pritam Kotal and Narayan Das are trusted servants to guard the flanks and in front of them would be the likes of Udanta Singh, Halicharan Narzary or Ashique Kuruniyan. Anirudh Thapa and Pronay Halder have formed a solid partnership in the double pivot for India and their output will be crucial against a Thailand side who likes to keep the ball and punish their opponents with quick transitions.
For India, Sunil Chhetri will once again be the go-to forward but the national team's all-time top scorer will be up against a defence that has kept nine clean sheets in 20 matches. However, Thailand's recent debacles, including a loss against Oman in a friendly, will boost India's confidence ahead of the crucial showdown.
"Our minimum expectation is to go through to the Round of 16. We do have some weak points and the match against Oman made them obvious. At this point, we need to forget about the result of the warm-up game. It's time to focus on the match against India,” said Thailand coach Milovan Rajevac.
After the Serbian took charge, Thailand have compromised a bit on the attacking front but are still lethal. Ditching the earlier gung-ho approach, Rajevac has managed to bring balance to the side and his approach has worked wonders, except for a minor-blip in the semi-final of the AFF Championship against Malaysia.
The semi-final exit, coupled with a friendly loss against Oman in the run-up to the tournament has put added pressure on Rajevac and the squad will be eager to perform well against India.
India, though, will fancy their chances and hope to start their campaign on a positive note.
Australia coach Graham Arnold backed the new generation of Socceroos to impress at the 2019 Asian Cup despite the absence of greats Tim Cahill and Mile Jedinak for the first time in a decade.
Former boss Ange Postecoglou had the country's all-time highest-scoring player Cahill and midfield stalwart Jedinak in his ranks when he guided them to glory in 2015, and the pair helped Australia to runners-up medals in 2011.
But it will be a new-look side that takes on Jordan at Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium in the United Arab Emirates on Sunday.
This time the focus is on the likes of Urawa Red Diamonds midfielder Andrew Nabbout and Perth Glory playmaker Chris Ikonomidis as Australia aim to defend their title, and Arnold was in optimistic mood ahead of their opener.
"These boys are ready," said Arnold. "I'm expecting a great performance and a great scoreline.
"I get goosebumps now thinking about it because it's like we've got some great players.
"I do believe quite a number don't realise how good this team is and how good this team will be."
Australia will also face Palestine and Syria in Group B and Arnold feels they have sufficient knowledge of their opponents' strengths.
Where to watch AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 matches on TV?
Star Sports network will telecast all the games from the tournament LIVE, with LIVE telecast of India games in six languages across Star Sports network and Hotstar.
Which Channels will telecast AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 matches on TV?
Fans can catch all the LIVE action from AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 on Star Sports 3 (Hindi), Star Sports 1 Hindi / HD (Hindi), Star Sports 2/ HD (English), Star Sports 1 Kannada, Star Sports 1 Tamil, Asianet Movies (Malayalam) and Jalsha Movies (Bengali)
When is India playing at the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019?
India are grouped with hosts UAE, Thailand and Bahrain in Group A. Team India will play their first game against Thailand on Sunday, January 06, 2019.
Matches on January 6th:
India vs Thailand match kicks off at 7:00pm IST
Australia vs Jordan kicks off at 4:30pm IST
Syria vs Palestine kicks off at 9:30pm
Source: ISL Media