The Blue Tigers will play the qualifiers to qualify for the 2023 edition of the tournament.
The Indian national team will fight for their chance to play in the 2023 AFC Asian Cup when they play in the final round qualifiers from June 8 to June 14. The Blue Tigers have to win their group, which consists of Afghanistan, Hong Kong and Cambodia, to book a place in the 2023 edition.
India had, of course, featured in the last AFC Asian Cup edition back in 2019. That marked their participation in the continental tournament since missing out on the 2015 edition. The 2019 AFC Asian Cup was a memorable, yet bittersweet one for the Indian national team and proved to be Stephen Constantine’s final tournament as the Blue Tigers’ head coach.
With that being said, let’s look back at India’s campaign back in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.
Road to UAE 2019
India had a tough road to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. They finished last in the Second Round group stages of the second round qualification and had to play in the Play-Off rounds. They faced Laos in Round 1, but Constantine’s side dominated the games – getting a 7-1 win across two legs.
In Round 3 of the qualifying playoffs, India were clubbed in a group with Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, and Macau. The Blue Tigers dominated the group stages, winning four out of the six matches and only losing once. They won the group and progressed to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup alongside Kyrgyzstan.
Dream start against Thailand
India were placed in a pretty challenging group in the 2019 edition. Playing in a group against hosts UAE, Bahrain and Thailand was no easy feat. UAE and Bahrain were both well higher in the FIFA World Rankings, with the former having home advantage. Thailand were equal in terms of quality, but a challenging prospect nonetheless.
In fact, many predicted the Blue Tigers to either lose or barely scrape through a draw against Thailand. What transpired was one of India’s best performances under Constantine. The Blue Tigers took the lead through a penalty converted by Sunil Chhetri in the 27th minute, but Thailand equalized six minutes later.
With both teams going into half-time level, Indian fans were ready to take a point. But the team aimed higher. The Blue Tigers started the second half in blistering fashion and blew away Thailand, with Chhetri scoring another in the 46th minute.
Jeje Lalpekhlua and Anirudh Thapa got into the act later on to secure a 4-1 win for India. In the game, the Blue Tigers produced some scintillating, clinical counter-attacking football and some beautifully orchestrated goals. The defence did its job perfectly and India sat atop the group after the first round of games.
Unlucky loss to the hosts
The confidence of Constantine’s men shot up after the brilliant win over Thailand. They went into the game against the UAE with their tails up. The hosts played a draw in their opener against Bahrain. They needed a win to keep their dreams of winning the group alive.
But the Blue Tigers did not crumble under the pressure. Even playing under a 40,000-strong crowd, with the majority supporting the UAE, India gave an admirable fight from the get-go. The first half was dominated by the UAE in terms of possession, but the Blue Tigers had their share of big chances.
Ashique Kuruniyan was threaded through on goal in the 14th minute, but his shot was saved well. Chhetri hit a header at the goalkeeper a few minutes later, leaving the hosts rattled. In fact, the UAE only took the lead in the 41st minute in a fortunate fashion.
Some miscommunication from the Indian defenders allowed them to get the ball into the box before Khalfan Mubarak converted. Chhetri got behind the defence minutes later, but his shot scraped wide of the goal.
Udanta Singh was a menace with his speedy runs and caused trouble on the right. The Bengaluru FC winger broke through in the 55th minute, but his shot hit the post. The Indian players started to grow tired after that and Ali Mabkhout scored in the 88th minute to secure the win.
Despite the loss, India put up a brave fight. The likes of Anirudh Thapa, Udanta, and Chhetri all impressed, but lady luck just wasn’t on their side on the day.
Going into the final group game, the equation was simple for India. They just needed to avoid defeat against Bahrain to qualify for the knockout stages. The pressure was well and truly on, with the players well aware of how important the game was.
Bahrain, desperate for a win, dominated the possession and kept pushing for a winner. The Blue Tigers, however, were adamant about seeing out a draw and produced some memorable defensive work. Sandesh Jhingan, in particular, was a dominant figure at the back and maintained a strict, stubborn back line.
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu also pulled off timely saves to frustrate the Bahrain players. The first half ended 0-0 and the Indian players were aware a draw was enough for them to finish as group runners-up. A win, although, would’ve helped them finish top of the group.
The Indian players kept Bahrain quiet, but the pressure started mounting after the 70th-minute mark. The Bahrain players mounted forward in numbers and pressure mounted high for the Indian players.
Despite the brilliant defensive work, one moment of lapse in concentration made the difference. Pronay Halder, who had performed really well as an enforcer in midfield, tried to clear a chance and committed a tackle inside the box – fouling a Bahrain player and awarding them a penalty.
Bahrain’s Jamal Rashid converted it in ice-cold fashion, helping them get the win and book a place in the knockout stages. That one moment of indecision meant India had to go back home. This is despite the fact that they were the only fourth-placed team in any group to actually win a game.
In another group, three points would’ve helped them get into the knockout rounds. But the loss marked a very bitter end to what was a defiant, memorable campaign. Stephen Constantine’s men poured their heart and soul into representing their nation, and made Indian football fans proud.
Soon after, Constantine resigned as the Indian football team coach after much speculation. He was later succeeded by Igor Stimac, who will aim to ensure India qualifiers for the 2023 Asian Cup and get an opportunity to script another memorable tale in the next edition.
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