India face Bahrain later tonight in what can potentially be the Group A decider. With UAE already sealing their place in the next round of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, it comes down to Thailand, India, and Bahrain to occupy the remaining two positions. However, if the Blue Tigers hope to qualify for the knockout stages, they must overcome a familiar opposition.
For the first time ever, India have an opportunity to qualify for the knockout stages of the AFC Asian Cup on merit. The Blue Tigers put themselves in a good position early on in the competition, when they thrashed Thailand 4-1. However, a defeat in their second match against UAE complicated things.
As a result, India go into the third round of group stage fixtures knowing what is required of them. However, to create history, they must first face Bahrain. And as it happens, it is not the first time the two will meet.
Road to Doha
India had qualified for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup after a Twenty Seven-year wait. A young Sunil Chhetri had helped them beat the likes of Myanmar and Tajikistan in the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup, earning the South Asian side a direct entry in the 2011 edition of the competition.
However, the euphoria of qualification was short-lived, as India were drawn in the ‘group of death’ alongside the likes of Austalia, South Korea, and Bahrain.
The Blue Tigers faced Australia first, and went down by four goals to nil, with a certain Tim Cahill netting twice. Nevertheless, qualification to the next round was still not out of the question. All India needed to do was defeat Bahrain and hope that Australia get the better of South Korea.
What went down?
Within eight minutes, India’s qualification hopes dwindled, as Bahrain opened the scoring courtesy of a penalty goal by Faouzi Aaish. However, the Blue Tigers weren’t behind for long, as Gourmangi Singh popped up at the other end of the pitch to score following a set-piece.
After a quick start, the match started to settle down a bit, albeit not for long. Just eight minutes after India’s equalizer, Bahrain’s Ismail Abdullatif capitalized on a Subrata Pal error, putting his side back in front.
From then on, it was the Ismail show, as he scored a first-half hattrick, and added a fourth in the second half. Sunil Chhetri pulled one back for India, but it mattered little as Bahrain ran out 5-2 winners, dumping the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup winners out of the competition.
Eight years have gone since. Eight years during which the footballing scene in both the countries has completely changed.
On this occasion, India hold Bahrain’s fate in their hands. A win or a draw would be enough to help the Blue Tigers into one of the qualifying spots of Group A of the AFC Asian Cup. A loss, meanwhile, would see Bahrain leapfrog India and quite possibly deliver the final knockout blow; just like they did eight years ago.