History-seeking Blue Tigers begin with Thailand test

The Indian football team’s moment of truth after an arduously long journey filled with commitment and desire is finally here as they cross swords against Thailand in their first fixture of the AFC Asian Cup at the Al-Nahyan Stadium in Abu Dhabi on Sunday.

Participating in their fourth AFC Asian Cup, the Blues Tigers will be aiming for a much better showing compared to their last appearance on the same stage eight years ago, where they lost all three of their groups games while conceding four or more goals in each of them.

THAILAND

The War Elephants are returning to the elite continental stage after more than a decade’s absence having last played an AFC Asian Cup match back in 2007 when they were co-hosts. Currently ranked 118, the Thai side led by head coach Milovan Rajevac were last seen in action on January 2 where they lost out 2-0 to Oman in a final friendly before the main event.

Although playing a more pragmatic way under the stewardship of Rajevac, the southeast Asian powerhouse are still a dangerous proposition with the likes of striker Teerasil Dangda and playmaker Chanathip Songkrasin within their ranks. Dangda especially, will be hard to live with for the Indian defense as the 30-year-old marksman has the experience and know-how of leading the line at a major event. His numbers aren’t bad either with 42 goals in 95 appearances to his name.

The War Elephants’ head-to-head record against the Blue Tigers might also come as a psychological boost for Rajevac’s men going into Sunday's showdown, albeit much has changed since the sides last met more than eight years ago.

Rajevac himself on the other hand, has come under increased pressure after seeing his side lose to Malaysia in the semi-finals of the 2018 AFF Cup. The Serb’s record of eight wins, six losses and eight draws in 20 games too has come under scrutiny with football enthusiasts back in Thailand demanding a more adventurous style of play.

INDIA

Stephen Constantine’s Blue Tigers have come an incredibly long way from their distorted past and will be hoping to continue on the same note at the AFC Asian Cup. Thailand, on paper, represents their best opportunity to take all three points given their superior FIFA ranking.

A goalless draw against Oman in their last game before the Thailand match exposed both the positives and negatives in Constantine’s developing side. Goals have been a problem for them lately with Jeje Lalpekhlua misfiring for both club and country. Sunil Chhetri’s return will come as a welcome sight for the Indian fans while the increased efficiency of the hard-working Udanta Singh couldn’t have come at a better time for Constantine.

Led by Sandesh Jhingan, the Indian defense has shown marked improvement and will again be expected to hit their recent standards against the likes of Dangda and Songkrasin. Midfielders Pronay Halder and Anirudh Thapa seem the most likely to start from the center of the pitch with Halicharan Narzary and Udanta flanking them. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu looks certain to start in goal for the Blue Tigers despite Amrinder Singh’s fantastic performances off late.

PROBABLE LINE-UPS

Thailand: Chatchai Budprom (GK), Theerathon Bunmathan, Chalermpong Kerdkaew, Adisorn Promrak, Pansa Hemviboon, Thitipan Puangchan, Sanrawat Dechmitr, Chanathip Songkrasin, Adisak Kraisorn, Teerasil Dangda, Siroch Chatthong

India: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu (GK), Subhasish Bose, Pritam Kotal, Sandesh Jhingan, Anas Edathodika, Pronay Halder, Anirudh Thapa, Udanta Singh, Halicharan Narzary, Sunil Chhetri, Jeje Lalpekhlua

Catch the match live on the Star Sports Network and Hotstar from 7:00 PM.

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