Former India football player Renedy Singh had a brief chat with Indian captain Sunil Chhettri ahead of the draw ceremony for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. "I just reminded him what an honour it was for an Indian captain to be part of the occasion," says Renedy of the ceremony in which Chhetri selected the ball that determined the group India would feature in. "I also wished him good luck, so that we get a good group.
Those wishes certainly seem to have helped. India were drawn alongside Thailand, Bahrain and hosts United Arab Emirates (UAE) in Group A. The UAE, ranked 81, are the only team with a better FIFA ranking than India in the group. Thailand are placed 122 and Bahrain occupy the 116th spot. "It couldn't have got better than this," says Renedy. "I don't think we could have got a better draw. At least compared to the last time that we played at the Asian Cup."
He recalls the torrid time India had the last time they featured in the continental tournament. Back in 2011, the side led by Bob Houghton were drawn alongside World Cuppers Australia, World Cup semi-finalists South Korea and Bahrain. India failed to win a single game then -- losing 4-0 to Australia, 4-1 to South Korea and 5-2 to Bahrain. "We couldn't have had a more difficult group then," says Renedy. "This time we have a much better chance."
Not everyone agrees with that assessment. "I don't think it is a particularly easy draw," says former India player Steven Dias. "We are playing against the hosts, who are one of the strongest teams in Asia. And Bahrain and Thailand aren't easy matches either."
Renedy doesn't dispute this. "It isn't that we have easy opponents," he says. "But I feel that Bahrain and Thailand are at or only a little above our level. If we play well and have a good day, we could spring a surprise." He mentions the two most recent times India had played the two countries. "We lost a very close game against Thailand and then at the Asian Cup we lost 5-2 against Bahrain," he says. "Even though we lost that game, it was a very big step our team took and I would still consider it one of our best performances as a team."
Renedy thinks the Indian team has only improved since then. "We have better facilities and a stronger league," he says. "Our players can be much better prepared than we were then." Even the match against the UAE is something he is looking forward to. "Ultimately you want to test yourself against the best teams," he says.
It is a sentiment shared by India goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. "Drawing against the UAE is going to be a good game, since the Asian Cup is in the UAE," he says. "It would be a cracking game, I am sure people are looking forward in the UAE, all the Indian people must be looking forward to see the Indian team come play. It is such a huge opportunity for us to take."
There are undoubtedly challenges that need to be overcome in Group A. "Bahrain and the UAE will have a strong physical advantage over us," says Renedy. "Thailand are likely to be very quick. We need to get a lot more comfortable with the ball. Right now apart from Sunil, it's hard to say who is comfortable keeping the ball in the team."
Gurpreet says the team has to make it difficult for opponents to settle into a good rhythm. "For sure, we need to ensure that we are a side that will make things difficult for other opponents to play against us and score against us," he says. "By being strong defensively, it will help our offensive parts as well. People have seen that in the past one or two years we have got results like that. I hope we keep building on our strong points, and we get that again in the Asian Cup."
Renedy says now that the draw is done, India need to ensure they send the best possible side for the Asian Cup. "The luck of the draw was not in our hands," he says. "But we need to make sure we prepare in the best possible way. We have another eight months to go for the competition. We need to play as many friendlies as possible. We need to play against teams that are at our level or higher like Indonesia or Thailand. We can't get into a false sense of security by playing Cambodia or Nepal [India's two most recent international friendlies]."
Indeed, at least improved competition might be a box that can be checked with India playing the four-nation Intercontinental Cup in June. "I think the four-nation cup is a very good rehearsal for us -- teams like South Africa and New Zealand are top-notch," says Gurpreet. "That's going to help us for sure."