The AFC Asian Cup begins on January 5 in Abu Dhabi. Here's all you need to know about the draw for the tournament which will take place in Dubai tomorrow:
What is the AFC Asian Cup?
The Asian Cup is the quadrennial continental competition for national teams in Asia, and 2019 will be the 17th edition of the tournament, which was first held in 1956. Japan are the most successful team in the history of the Asian Cup, with four titles, while Saudi Arabia and Iran have won it three times each.
Reigning champions Australia have been a part of the Asian Cup since 2007. This is the first time that the field will comprise 24 teams. The six groups of four teams each will see the top two from each group join the four best third-placed sides in the round of 16, similar to the format of the last European Championships in France in 2016.
Who could India be grouped with?
As one of the higher-ranked finishers in the Asian Cup qualifiers, you would expect 97th-ranked India to have a good draw in their favour. They will enter the draw in Pot 3, though, as Pots 1 and 2 will have teams that had performed well in the early stages of World Cup qualification for 2018, and automatically qualified for the Asian Cup. Iran, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Australia and Japan are all in Pot 1, alongside hosts UAE, and hence India will only draw one of those six nations.
Among Pot 2 teams, Qatar (101) and Thailand (122) are both ranked lower than India but went further in World Cup qualification and hence join teams like China, Syria, Uzbekistan and former champions Iraq. India are ranked higher than each of the six teams in Pot 4 - goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu believes their best bet for progress would be in getting drawn against Turkmenistan, ranked 129th, from that Pot. India incidentally faced them twice in World Cup qualification, and though they lost both legs 2-1, they led 1-0 at half-time in Kochi and had held their opponents 1-1 for an hour in the away leg in Ashgabat.
Which countries would they want to avoid?
Any of the World Cup qualifiers would be difficult for India to face, and they would also want to avoid a physically imposing team like Uzbekistan from Pot 2. Bahrain, Yemen and Jordan are three West Asian teams in Pot 4 that India would prefer not having to face, especially if they want to have a chance of picking up a win and staying in contention for the round of 16.
As Sandhu says, "Nothing is going to be easy for us. We are a team with a different kind of style, so obviously we are going to come under pressure, but we have to deal with it. It is such a huge opportunity for us to take."
How have India fared in the tournament's history?
India have had mixed fortunes in their previous three appearances, scattered over 47 years. They were runners-up to Israel in 1964, but failed to make it out of the group stages in both 1984 and 2011. Seven years ago, they were placed in a tough group with Bahrain, Australia and South Korea, with the latter two eventually contesting the semis that year. The good news this year? They can only draw any two of those three countries in their group, though that won't make their job of getting out of the group stages any easier.