CHENNAI: And so it's out! India will face a tough task in the Asian Cup in January 2019, after being drawn with hosts UAE, Thailand and Bahrain on Friday. Skipper Sunil Chhetri was on the stage while coach Stephen Constantine was in attendance as India, who were in Pot 3, were drawn in Group A. They will take on Thailand in their opening game of the tournament.
While the group would not have been the worst-case scenario for the number crunchers at the All Indian Football headquarters, the fact remains that things could have been so much better. Of particular disappointment to them would be drawing Bahrain from Pot 4, when there were at least three teams in it that India would have considered beatable.
India would remember Bahrain well from the last time they participated in this tournament — Bob Houghton's men were soundly beaten 5-2 on that occasion. Thailand is ranked 25 places behind India, but drawing them looks good only on paper. In the preliminary stages of World Cup qualification, Thailand bested Asian powerhouse Iraq to finish top of the group, holding them to two draws. Their form, however, dipped dramatically in the next stage of the qualifiers, but they still managed to hold World Cup-bound Australia and UAE to draws.
UAE came close to qualifying for the World Cup, after being pipped to a play-off spot by Australia. They too managed to carve out some impressive results in the campaign, beating the likes of Japan and Saudi Arabia, both of whom will contest in Russia.
However, former India captain IM Vijayan felt India too had improved over the course of Asian Cup qualification. "We have shown in the past we can get results against all these teams," he said. "The draw is no doubt tough, but I fully expect India to not come back empty-handed. We did well, remaining unbeaten throughout Asian qualification, so you cannot rule Chhetri & Co from causing a few upsets in UAE."
Participation in the tournament represents a financial windfall for the All India Football Federation with India standing to gain as much as `1.3 crore ($200,000) as a participation fee from the tournament.
This is only the fourth time India will participate in the Asian Cup. The last time was in 2011 when they found themselves in the same group as Australia, South Korea and Bahrain and lost all three games, conceding 13 goals.