India's 4-1 mauling of Thailand in their 2019 AFC Asian Cup Group A opener is the result of several years of hard work.
The Blue Tigers were neither lucky nor were they playing a sub-standard opponent. This was a Thailand side boosted by the return of key players such as Teerasil Dangda and Chanathip Songkrasin, after a 2018 AFF Championship where they scored 17 goals from six matches. With odds stacked heavily against India, it is safe to say Stephen Constantine and his team pulled a rabbit out of the hat.
Sunil Chhetri was influential and scored two goals to aid the team. Ashique Kuruniyan, the 21-year-old winger who was trusted with leading the attack alongside Chhetri, delivered an excellent performance. The midfielders kept it tidy and chose their moments to surge forward and the defence restricted the lethal Thai attack to half-chances.
India showed incredible teamwork, organization and chemistry to project a united front on the field and deal with whatever Thailand threw at them. Their second-half display, which nullified Thailand's threat, is arguably the national teams' best 45 minutes in recent years.
There has been widespread criticism of the coach's team selections in the last two years and when the final 23-man Indian squad for Asian Cup was announced in December, many supporters were left disappointed.
There were a lot of hues and cry over the omission of certain players. However, what Constantine did was to stick to his tried and tested combination - a squad designed and built by him since 2015.
Constantine has handed more than 40 players their debuts for the national team. And of the 23-man squad in UAE, 20 players were handed their senior debut by Constantine since taking charge of the team in 2015. Only Sunil Chhetri, Balwant Singh and Jeje Lalpekhlua had donned the national team kit in an official capacity before Constantine's appointment.
Despite the attack on his choices, he has consistently picked the players that fit his system. His preference for players with high work rate is not a secret and the hard work put in for the national team has earned several players a ticket to UAE regardless of their club form.
More than 10 players who played matches at the World Cup Qualification in 2016 and Asian Cup Qualification in 2017 are with the current squad. Fast forward to 2018, India had 14 of the current 23 players in the squad for the trip to the Kyrgyz Republic for their Asian Cup qualification fixture. Only six players from the current squad were not part of the Intercontinental Cup in June.
With the 2019 AFC Asian Cup set as the main objective, Constantine kept the core of his Indian squad intact and that helped in developing good team chemistry. There were no new faces in the starting lineup that started against Thailand on Sunday and everyone knew what their teammates were capable of.
There is absolutely no doubt that the team that beat Thailand was one forged by Constantine. It was his set of warriors, completely doused in his ideas and style of play, that pulled off an incredible result. Credit where it is due. The British coach has stuck to his guns and has come out blazing.
This understanding and bonding worked wonders for India and Stephen Constantine will be banking on it to work well against tougher challenges that lie ahead.