By Samindra Kunti in Abu Dhabi
January 5 – India and Thailand will focus on kicking off their Asian Cup campaign in winning style on Sunday at the Al Nahyan Stadium as the two nations have subdued tournament expectations after enduring a troublesome build-up to the finals.
The Thais suffered a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Oman in their final friendly before the tournament as the pressure builds on Serbian coach Milovan Rajevac, who has coached Algeria and Ghana in the past. Thailand had Teerasil Dangda and Chanathip Songkrasin, two of their key players, back in their ranks but it was not enough to contain Pim Verbeeck’s team.
“We do have some weak points and the match against Oman made them obvious,” said Rajevac. “At this point, we need to forget about the result of the warm-up game. It’s time to focus on the looming match against India. We must try to do everything possible to start the tournament with a good result.”
The Serbian was already under pressure after Thailand failed to win the Suzuki Cup in the autumn. Malaysia ended Thailand’s dominance of Asean football by beating the defending champions in the last four.
The War Elephants will still be favourites going into the Group A encounter. India are ranked the fifteenth-best team in Asia, but their prospects of making the knockout phase will be limited and a good start will be key for the Blue Tigers. They return to the finals after an eight-year absence. In 2011 they faced a tough draw alongside Australia and South Korea.
Last October the Indians held China to a goalless draw away from home and that result sparked a wave of optimism with AIFF president Praful Patel claiming the qualification for the 2026 World Cup is a target for India.
The preparations of Stephen Constantine’s team have however been very limited as India have played just three friendlies since the World Cup. Thailand have warmed up nine time in the same period. Constantine has succeeded in strengthening the defence, but up front the attack is blunt with everyone except Sunil Chhetri, the veteran striker, out of form.
“When I arrived four years ago, we’d go and try play the game to not lose by too many goals,” said Constantine on the eve of the game. “That has changed over the four years. We are not going into a game thinking that we are going to lose. We go into a game thinking that we are going to win. That is the biggest change from a mentality point of view.”
“The work rate I think has increased. The boys put phenomenal work rate into training and into games and I think the unity and the work rate of the team is why we are here.”
India will need that winning mentality on Sunday. In 22 encounters, they have beaten Thailand just five times, their last victory dating back to 1986.
Contact the writer of this story, Samindra Kunti, at moc.l1634713234labto1634713234ofdlr1634713234owedi1634713234sni@o1634713234fni1634713234