India's defender Anas Edathodika, second right, heads the ball past United Arab Emirates' forward Ali Mabkhout al Hajeri, right, during the AFC Asian Cup group A soccer match between United Arab Emirates and India at Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019. Image Credit: AP

Abu Dhabi: India’s former ace striker I.M. Vijayan and goalkeeper Henry Menezes have hailed India’s impressive run of form in the AFC Asian Cup and felt there was no reason for the Blue Tigers to part ways with coach Stephen Constantine, whose contract is due to end after this tournament.

India defeated Thailand 4-1 in the opener and then went down fighting to hosts UAE 2-0 in a contest where they created ample scoring opportunities.

India now have a do-or-die game against Bahrain on Monday and need at least a draw to fancy any chance of making it to the round of 16.

“The team is set under Constantine and it has so far been a performance none of us have believed. India qualified for the Asian Cup also strongly with games in hand and that in itself is an achievement,” said Vijayan, who is in the UAE as an India government-appointed observer, told Gulf News in an exclusive interview.

Henry Menezes and I. M. Vijayan in Abu Dhabi. Image Credit: N. D. Prashant/Gulf News

Rumours were rife that there were differences within the team, especially between Constantine and star player Sunil Chhetri.

Just before the start of the tournament, the buzz was that Constantine was already on his way out which All India Football Federation (AIFF) brushed aside with a media release.

Thankfully, none of the off-field talks affected the team and they got a lot of eyeballs with their showing as a strong unit.

“Whatever maybe the case, it is a credit indeed for the coach. There might be differences and that can happen but importantly, it has not affected the performance. For that, the players and coach Constantine should be lauded,” asserted Vijayan, who made 66 appearances for the national team and scored 29 goals.

Menezes too echoed the same views as Vijayan — saying that India played like a ‘top team’ under Constantine and the ‘quality of creating chances’ has been never seen before.

“There is a lot of bickering happening about Constantine but when the results are good enough and the results are of topmost level, there is nothing to criticise about the coach. I think we should set that aside and just back the team to go to the next round because that is what can take Indian football forward,” said Menezes, vice-chairman of AIFF technical committee and CEO of Western India Football Association.

Speaking about India’s crunch duel against Bahrain, Vijayan felt that there was no need for India to do anything drastic to achieve success.

“I wouldn’t say we need to go all out. We just need to dish out the same style of play we showed against the UAE. Stay positive all the way through. The performance that we saw is something that none of us as Indians have seen before. I feel there is no reason why we can’t win or draw the next match and go ahead,” declared Vijayan, adding: “It felt proud to hear from Arab counterparts that India played really well and we were just lucky.”

As per Menezes, what stood out was the team effort, with not one player scoring all the goals and the supreme fitness levels. “There has been so much emphasis on fitness and the players have clearly excelled in that department. We didn’t see any dip in the performance or a dropping of the shoulder even when we conceded goal against the UAE. Such things are heartening to see and speaks volumes of the strength and determination of a team,” said Menezes.

“The momentum is there and we need to be a little bit more solid in defence as chances will come in for the opposition as well. Bahrain also will be desperate to win this tie. And I would say the team should only aim for victory and not think of a draw at all,” Menezes added.