With thousands of Indian in UAE set to cheer for India at AFC Asian Cup, 21-year-old Kerala-born winger Ashique Kuruniyan already feels like a blessed soul.
The last two years have been an amazing ride for the Malappuram native. The Pune City winger put in impressive shifts in the 2017-18 Indian Super League and was rewarded with a call-up to the Indian national team ahead of the Intercontinental Cup and less than 10 months later, Ashique found himself in a flight to Abu Dhabi.
"AFC Asian Cup is going to be the biggest tournament of my life. I am happy to be part of an Indian squad that is qualifying for the finals after a long gap. I never thought I would be here. I am lucky to be with the national team," Ashique Kuruniyan talks about his journey to Goal .
The Indian international is pleased with his progress with the national team under Stephen Constantine and showered glowing praise on the Briton for his work with the Indian squad.
"The preparation of the team is good. We will also improve individually. Stephen Constantine is the best coach I have worked for. He knows the qualities of the Indian players. He knows what the Indian players have done and what they can do. He knows the right players who can fit into his system.
"I have been able to learn a lot of new things from him since joining the national team camp. If there are mistakes in my game, he has told me about those and explained what he needs from me for his game."
Ashique, who used to play as an out-and-out winger, dropped deep to play the wing-back position on the left flank for Pune City in the ongoing season on occasions. The added defensive responsibility isn't a concern for the player, especially weighed against the fact that he has featured regularly in the first team for the Stallions.
"Playing as a wing-back and a winger is similar in a lot of ways. I have to attack and also defend. It is normal. I was able to play a lot of games this season. I have played all 12 games for Pune City.
"But we cannot compare ISL and Asian Cup, they are at different levels. Playing with national team is a different level and the opponents are also going to be at a different level. The (games) will be faster."
India are in Group A with Thailand, Bahrain and UAE, all of whom are in good form ahead of the Asian Cup. However, Ashique feels India's focus should be on giving their best on the field.
"We're not thinking about other teams at the moment. We are thinking about improving ourselves. The coach and the players are trying to improve the team game. We will try to play our game well."
One major criticism of India's preparation ahead of the Asian Cup has been the lack of preparatory friendlies in the months leading up to the tournament. The Blue Tigers held China to a goalless draw in October, lost to Jordan 1-2 in November and drew 0-0 again to Oman in a closed door friendly last week.
"I am satisfied with the preparation, the coach is training the team well. They have tried well to get us prepared," Ashique signed off.