The AFC Asian Cup 2019 draw concluded with India being grouped alongside Bahrain, ASEAN champions Thailand and hosts UAE in Group A. While the draw does bring a slight sigh of relief for India who are ranked 97 in FIFA, skipper Sunil Chhetri believes the team must play tougher opponents outside home in order to perform well in the tournament which begins on January 5 next year.
Having qualified for the tournament after 8 years, expectations from the team are high. The federation and coach Stephen Constantine is counting on the Intercontinental Cup in June this year followed by the SAFF Championship to provide much needed preparation for the team ahead of their opener but skipper Sunil Chhetri feels India should also look to play against opponents away from home to prepare well enough to better their performance of 2011, where the team crashed out in the group stage losing all 3 games.
“What I’m looking forward to is winning games outside the country which is very important. Our home record is fairly good but outside home we have really struggled. I just hope in the next six months we get more away games against much better opponents so that we can test ourselves. What we are facing (in Asian Cup) are the best in Asia”, said Chhetri in an interview.
Chhetri backed his argument citing India’s rather dismal display against top quality Asian sides in the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualification, where they could manage just one win out of 8 matches. Even though the team showed signs of promise in the home matches, they seemed to fall apart in the away matches, losing all 4 of them, even to Guam.
Commenting on the draw itself, Chhetri denied calling their opponents any easier than the ones India faced in 2011.
“If you say it can be easier because we are doing well that can be a valid point. But we can’t say it is UAE, Thailand and Bahrain and so it is easier. Only because we are not facing Australia and South Korea people think it’s going to be easy. It is not.” he said.
“UAE is ahead of us and they are playing at home. Thailand is the most improved side in Asia in the last six years. We played against Thailand six-seven years ago and it was a 2-2 draw. They are competing with the best in Asia. Australia and Japan are finding difficult to beat Thailand.”
The skipper mentioned about the importance of picking the maximum points from the first match of the campaign. India begin their journey against Bahrain on January 6, 2019. India faced Bahrain back in 2011 Asian Cup where the middle-east country handed them a 5-2 defeat.