Less than 60 days remain for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup to get underway in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as the clock ticks down on the continent’s biggest footballing prize.
After a gap of eight years, India are back on Asia’s biggest stage and have been drawn in a tough group which includes the hosts UAE, alongside Thailand and Bahrain.
Stephen Constantine and his men are the in the final phase of their preparations for the tournament with a 1-2 defeat to Jordan in an international friendly at Amman being their latest outing.
The Blue Tigers will have their task cut out in attempting to buy a ticket to the knockout rounds of the 24-team competition. For the most part in the tournament, India will be rubbing shoulders against more fancied opponents from the continent.
While India walked away with a commendable draw in their historic friendly against China recently, they had their backs against the wall for the majority of the match. It took some last-ditch defending and a highly wasteful Chinese attack for the match to end in a goalless stalemate.
What India did show in that game is that they could be dangerous from set-pieces. In the UAE, Constantine’s men can expect much of the same of what they faced against China. Against superior opponents, they will be chasing the ball for large parts of the game and as such, it makes sense for them to double down on their set-piece capabilities.
If the 2018 World Cup held in Russia this summer has taught us anything, it is that set-pieces can take teams very far in the competition. A whopping 70 goals in the tournament resulted from dead-ball situations which constituted 43 per cent of the total tally. That is the highest number ever seen in the competition since 1966.
1966 was the year England won the World Cup for the first and last time. In the 2018 edition, they stitched together their most impressive run since 1966 as they advanced all the way to the semi-final before coming undone at the hands of Croatia. Gareth Southgate’s men scored nine of their 12 goals in the campaign through set pieces to set a new record in the competition.
The Three Lions broke their own record of eight set piece goals scored in the 1966 edition. Even in their 1-2 semi-final defeat to Croatia, they had led for a considerable majority through a free-kick. Southgate's men partly avenged that defeat on Sunday in the UEFA Nations League clash against the same opponent with two goals resulting from set-pieces helping them overturn a 0-1 deficit.
India might need some similar inspiration if they are to go far in the AFC Asian Cup. The likes of Sandesh Jhingan, Pronay Halder are obvious threats from dead balls while Sunil Chhetri can be a dangerous customer in the air too.
Entering the tournament as one of the clear underdogs, India can try and beat the odds with their set-pieces. Constantine will no doubt be channelling some of India’s preparations towards dead-ball situations and as the World Cup has shown, fortune can really favour those who believe in the ‘set-pieces pays dividends’ mantra.
When you are chasing the ball against opponents who will dominate the same, a set-piece will provide you with a direct route to goal. India would do well to remember this.