With diets in check, India looking to 'enjoy' against UAE

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A day after scoring India's fourth goal in India's Asian Cup opener, with virtually his first touch as a substitute, Jeje Lalpekhula's teammates celebrated his 28th birthday. The size of the cake was tiny for a group of around 30 adult men and most of it got smeared on Jeje's face anyway. No offence to the cake, the Indian contingent is only being ultra-careful with what they put into their systems during the biggest tournament of their lives.

Nobody is taking chances as hosts UAE await next on Thursday. Assistant coach Shanmugham Venkatesh marks the discipline of the current batch out as the single biggest reason behind their improved performances in recent years. "The last match [against Thailand] was not a fluke," he says. "Winning this match is down to many reasons, many of them outside the field. How they are taking care of themselves, what diet they are following, and maintaining themselves. Credit goes to some of the senior players like Sunil [Chhetri], Jeje. They are doing it."

The morning after the Thailand win saw the substitutes head off for a practice -- while the rest of the team recovered in the swimming pool -- but the entire team hit the gym on their own on Tuesday, before reporting for evening practice. Venkatesh says this awareness wasn't common during his playing days between 1998 and 2006, and players took care of themselves physically only when instructed by coaches and physios.

Defender Arnab Mondal, who was a part of this team until 2017, says his younger teammates would often inspire him to be more conscious about his habits. "There's a life outside football, and players today are much more conscious about things like lifestyle, diet, nutrition," he says. "I might have been eating something else, but then noticed that they are eating something healthier, and so I would shift to eating what they are eating. If you have to play for the national team for a long period, then you have to maintain these things."

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Another significant change has been the belief within the team. Former defender Gouramangi Singh -- India's fifth most capped player -- contrasts how players today are much more used to being around top players of the world thanks to their exposure to the Indian Super League (ISL) and through big international matches than when they were last at the Asian Cup in 2011. "In the last five years, the next generation of footballers have changed for the better in many ways. When we played Australia, South Korea and Bahrain, almost all these teams had played at the World Cup just a year back. They were the best in Asia and we were more than excited," he says of a campaign where India began with a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of the Australians.

In contrast, against Thailand coach Stephen Constantine told his team to sit back for the first five minutes, and watch and read their opponents' game. India were happy to cede a majority of possession throughout the match, but compensated with a high-pressing game that took Thailand apart, particularly in the second half.

Venkatesh admits that UAE are a bigger challenge, especially in front of their own fans, and wants to guard the team from getting overconfident after their win. UAE are also looking for a win after only drawing against Bahrain in their opening game. "The technical factors are different," he says. "UAE is a bigger team. We have to give responsibility to the players about what to do on the ground. We'll tell the players to stick to the plan and to enjoy. For us, this is the World Cup."