India v Bahrain: Constantine's men closing in on historic progression
India head coach Stephen Constantine is "over the moon" his team are on the verge of booking their historic progression to the Asian Cup knockout phase, calling such an achievement "massive for Indian football".
The Blue Tigers attracted acclaim for their impressive 4-1 win over Thailand in their Group A opener, only to lose 2-0 to hosts the United Arab Emirates after that.
Nevertheless, that victory over Thailand leaves India in a great position heading into their final group match against Bahrain, as they sit second to UAE and looking almost certain to qualify.
A win will guarantee India only finish as low as second in the group, as they have a better head-to-head record against Thailand.
India have never been past the first round of the Asian Cup, and Englishman Constantine recognises his team are on the brink of making history.
"The more you have to fight for, the more you have to lose," he told reporters. "Against UAE, Bahrain were the better side and against Thailand, they were a little unlucky and I hope they are unlucky against us.
"Bahrain are a good team, they are very well organised, they've got some quality players and they will need to win this match, so they will try to attack us, but we will be prepared for that.
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"We've done a tremendous job in the last four years. Especially the backroom staff. We have a team behind the team. I'm over the moon that we are on the verge of qualifying for the last 16 and that's massive for Indian football."
Bahrain have picked up just a single point so far, in a draw with UAE, meaning only a victory on Monday will see them get through to the next round.
Such a position at least forces their hand against India, knowing they have to go all-out for a win, and coach Miroslav Soukup is hoping to make the most of any hint of complacency from Bahrain's opponents.
"We must win the next game against India," Soukup said. "We have conceded two goals after the match against Thailand. I hope everyone plays better than the way we did against Thailand.
"India have it much easier than us. It's OK if they lose 1-0 tomorrow, they already have three points, but I really hope after the game we qualify into the next round.
"We must always trust our players. Our defenders and strikers are really good. We had a good preparation before this tournament and I want my players to show more courage on the field, especially inside the penalty box."
PLAYERS TO WATCH
India – Gurpeet Singh
Coming into the tournament, Singh was regarded as being one of Constantine's most important players. The goalkeeper has a good reputation but not had many opportunities to show his abilities so far in this competition, with India generally well-drilled at the back. He might come under a little more pressure on Monday against a desperate Bahrain.
Bahrain – Abdulla Yusuf Helal
With Bahrain needing to take the three points, Soukup might be persuaded to hand a first start of the tournament to Yusuf Helal. The attacker, who is enjoying a good season in his coach's native Czech Republic with Bohemians, can offer real impetus and a slight change might be what is needed considering the team have scored only once so far.
KEY OPTA FACTS
- Bahrain beat India 5-2 in their only previous meeting at the Asian Cup, in the group stages of the 2011 tournament. It is Bahrain's biggest win to date at the tournament.
- A win for India would guarantee them a place in the knockout stages for the first time in their history, having failed to do so in the previous two tournaments they qualified for (1984 and 2011).
- Bahrain have won only one of their last six Asian Cup games (drawing one and losing four), failing to score in half of these matches.
- India have lost five of their last six Asian Cup matches (winning one), conceding an average of 3.2 goals per game (19 in total).
- Bahrain have conceded in each of their last 20 Asian Cup games – double the longest current streak of any nation (10 – Kuwait and Hong Kong).