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Asian Cup 2019: Constantine's gamble on Ashique Kuruniyan pays off against Thailand

21:28 GMT+4 06/01/2019
India vs Thailand Defence
The Pune City winger was integral to India's sensational win over Thailand in their Asian Cup opener....

When India's starting line-up for their AFC Asian Cup opener against Thailand was announced, the biggest surprise was the omission of Jeje Lalpekhlua. Sunil Chhetri was the sole forward in the team with three recognsied wingers in Halicharan Narzary, Udanta Singh and Ashique Kuruniyan.

If any eyebrows were raised at that point, they were rendered moot as soon as the match got underway. Ashique, the lanky winger, was deployed to lead the line with Chhetri playing behind him.

The decision from Stephen Constantine turned out to be an inspired one as Ashique did the job he was entrusted with to perfection. He used his height well to hold up play and utilised his pace whenever the opportunity was presented to him.

His physique did give the Thai defenders something to think about and his skill on the ball meant that he was a thorn for their side throughout his stay on the pitch. In fact, Ashique was one of the few bright spots for India in an average first-half display along with Anas Edathodika.

From the early run he made into the Thailand area, he was behind every good move India orchestrated. It was his brilliant run in the 27th minute that handed India the lead. He bombed into the area and saw a shot saved by the goalkeeper which hit the hands of Theerathon Bunmathan. Chhetri duly dispatched the resulting spot-kick.

He was involved in Chhetri's second as well, showing good awareness to lay off Udanta's ball into the Bengaluru FC man's path who swept home gloriously. That goal set the tone for an imperious showing in the second half from India after Thailand had equalised in the 33rd minute. Much of that was down to India's lack of organisation in the box while defending a set-piece. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who otherwise had a solid outing, was also culpable, having come out indecisively to claim Bunmathan's left-footed free-kick and failed to do so and Teerasil Dangda profited.

India were a bit off the pace in midfield in the first half, with Pronay Halder and Anirudh Thapa allowing the Thai midfielders too much space to operate. Halicharan Narzary and Udanta Singh were also poor while Chhetri's tendency to over-complicate moves saw him miss a glorious chance set up for him by the impressive Ashique.

But it was a different side which took to the field in the second half. Chhetri's second goal was as a result of that changed approach. Halder and Thapa started to assert themselves in midfield and seized control of the match. Their many recoveries helped India initiate quick, pacy attacks that left Thailand stumped.

Chanathip Songkrasin and Sanrawat Dechmitr, who enjoyed a lot of time and space in the first half, were suddenly stifled and Constantine's men have to be credited for the same.

Milovan Rajevac subsequently took Dechmitr off for Wiriyaudomsiri but it did not help as India kept up their intensity. Songkrasin was also hooked in the 73rd minute as The War Elephants searched for inspiration.

Even Anas Edathodika was seen stepping up from defence often to snub budding Thai attacks.

Whenever India had possession, there were plenty of options to pass the ball as the wings came alive. Narzary improved massively while Udanta came up with some important contributions.

It was his counter that saw Thapa bag the third goal while Kuruniyan's replacement late on, Jeje Lalpekhlua, grabbed his first goal of the season to seal a thumping result. Those two goals were prime examples of the confidence which India displayed in the second half.

The manner of victory and the three points will go a long way in helping India achieve their primary objective which is to qualify for the knockout stages of the Asian Cup. If India can keep up the intensity and style which they displayed in the second half on Sunday against Bahrain and UAE, it can possibly be achieved.