AFC Asian Cup 2019: Who are India’s opponents in the group stage?

With India kicking off their AFC Asian Cup 2019 campaign against Thailand on the 6th of January, FOX Sports Asia takes a glance at the three sides pitted against the Blue Tigers in Group A.

1. Thailand 

Ranking: Thailand are statistically the lowest-ranked team in group A – placed 118 in the latest FIFA Rankings.

Coach: The War Elephants are coached by Milovan Rajevac, the man behind Ghana’s historic run to the quarterfinals of the FIFA World Cup in 2010. Appointed in 2017 after Thailand failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, he was recently handed a contract extension until 2020.

Form: Milovan Rajevac’s men are unbeaten in their last seven games, however, they did suffer a defeat against a much higher-ranked Oman side in their final friendly prior to the start of the tournament.

Past record: This will be Thailand’s 7th appearance in the competition, having surprisingly qualified for the tournament more times than the Indians despite not being a regional footballing superpower.

Head-to-head: While the Indians don’t often play against the Thai football team, their record against the Southeast Asian giants is abysmal at best. The last time these two sides met, India went down 2-1 and their last win against Thailand came 33 years ago in 1986.

Verdict: Although the Blue Tigers have been handed one of the kindest opening fixtures, Stephen Constantine must not underestimate the task on his hands. Historically, India’s record in this fixture is poor, which is exactly why they must have their guards up. That being said, India will definitely be looking for a victory here to give their hopes of qualification for the next round a massive boost.

2. Bahrain

Ranking: The Bahrain national football team is ranked 113 according to the latest FIFA rankings, second lowest in group A and just five places ahead of Thailand.

Coach: Bahrain are coached by Czech coach Miroslav Soukup, who will complete a total of three-and-a-half years at the helm on the 27th of this month.

Form: Miroslav Soukup’s men come into the tournament on the back of three wins in three games – all in the month of December, albeit against teams ranked lower or just ahead of them in the world rankings.

Past record: This will be their 6th appearance in the Asian Cup and the Bahranians have become a regular feature in the tournament since their second appearance in 2004 yielded a best-ever 4th place finish. However, they have been knocked out in the group phase in every edition since then.

Head-to-head: India’s record against Bahrain is once again despicable, having failed to win a single match against them in their entire history. Their last meeting was in the same tournament back in 2011, when the Indians took a 5-2 hammering.

Verdict: Despite having never won a match against Bahrain, the Indians are a different proposition now to what they were before and Stephen Constantine’s men will be quietly optimistic of exacting revenge for their humiliation in the 2011 edition of the tournament, although it won’t be easy.

3. United Arab Emirates

Ranking: The hosts are the highest ranked team in Group A – significantly ahead of the remaining three teams, at the 79th spot.

Coach: The Emiratis are coached by one of the most renowned Italian coaches of all time – Alberto Zaccheroni, who took the helm in 2017 and has since guided them to a second-place finish in last year’s Gulf Cup.

Form: While they have not been in red-hot form this year, the UAE did manage to win their last friendly against Kuwait prior to the tournament and also managed a 0-0 draw against a much-higher ranked Bolivian team in November – ensuring the hosts are sufficiently prepared to take on a group comprising largely of minnows.

A draw against Bahrain in their opening Asian Cup game might have put a slight dent in their hopes of qualification, but they are still expected to top their group.

Past record: Qualification usually comes easy for UAE – having qualified for every edition they have taken part in except in 2000. Their best finish is a runners-up spot in 1996 and they also ended the 2015 edition of the tournament in 3rd place.

Head-to-head: India’s record against their toughest opponents in the group phase is relatively better compared to their record against the other sides – their last meeting ended in a 2-2 draw during the qualification phase for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. In 13 games against UAE, India have managed two wins and three draws, losing the remaining eight, and their last win came way back in 2001.

Verdict: Facing the hosts will be India’s toughest test during the group phase and while Sunil Chhetri and company will be full of confidence, a win against UAE looks a rather far-fetched prospect. Having said this, stranger things have indeed happened in football and having drawn against Marcello Lippi’s China on their own turf, this is certainly an Indian side that is capable of conjuring up moments of magic.