AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers: India pass peculiar test in Macau, but plenty of room for improvement
With that win over Macau, India extended their fine unbeaten streak to 11 games to sit pretty on top of Group A with 9 points
Hardworking, resilient, plucky and clinical. India's performance in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers has been credited with some if not all of these adjectives. Facing opponents who were their match or better, the Blue Tigers brought all the above mentioned qualities to the table to register identical 1-0 wins against Myanmar and Kyrgyz Republic in the first two games.
However, their third game against bottom-placed and point-less Macau provided them a rather peculiar test. Not blessed with the high level of talent and quality as compared to the rest of the continent, Stephen Constantine has forged an honest side that's ready to put in a shift to earn its rewards. It's a team that banks on collective effort, resilience and an ability to produce one or two moments of brilliance every game.
But up against 183-ranked Macau, India had to deal with a poorer or a weaker version of its self before eventually triumphing 2-0. The Macanese were well-organised in defence, willing to toil hard, and ready to pounce on any attacking opportunity that falls their way.
Constantine has lamented his side's inability to make a good start as teams have often been able to dictate play against them in the opening exchanges. In the recently concluded Tri-nation series in Mumbai, Mauritius put The Blue Tigers under pressure early on and even took the lead in the 15th minute of the game.
In Macau, India endured another poor start, but that was for an altogether different reason. As the home side sat back and allowed their visitors onto them, Constantine's men found themselves in unknown territory. Instead of weathering an early storm, India were faced with a challenge of unlocking a defence that had no problems with putting the whole side behind the ball.
The Macanese appeared to have caught the Indians by surprise who had lined up to soak pressure and hit their opponents on the break. A front three of Jeje Lalpekhlua, Halicharan Narzary and Udanta Singh was tailor-made for quick counter-attack, but hosts who parked the bus meant that ploy was out of the window.
India's goals recently have either come through some intricate piece of passing through the centre or lightning quick counter-attacks. The Macanese crowded the central area of their own box and smothered any India attempt of carving them open. Their back four was narrow and stayed compact, making it tough for the Indians to find any gaps.
Chhetri tried to make the most of his understanding with Bengaluru FC team-mate Udanta when he chipped delicate passes over Macau's last line of defence, but on the two occasions he did so, he could only find a Macanese defender who cleared any possible danger. Jeje was isolated. Narzary and Udanta known primarily for their pace, and ability to get behind defenders weren't allowed any room to do so, although the former twisted and turned in an attempt to create space a few times, only to run into traffic.
For a good part of the first half hour India tried to probe the hosts' defence with fine one-twos through the middle, but their was absolutely no success.
As Constantine's men pushed for a breakthrough, Macau dropped deeper, thus affording the Indian midfielders space to try their luck from distance. India were banking on Chhetri - the player with most ability in the side - to produce the goods as he did in the two previous matches. In the 28th minute, he almost produced another moment of class when his left-footed effort crashed against the upright. It was India's first meaningful effort on goal.
The Blue Tigers were required to adapt to the situation, fairly unusual to them and find a way of breaking down the stern Macau defence. Plan A wasn't working and they needed to be intelligent enough to devise a Plan B of wearing their opponents down.
Post the half-hour mark, India made a shift in strategy. Captain Chhetri seemed to be making no secret of it when he was seen urging his team to go wide and stretch the field as much as possible. But the Indians didn't seem to have the right players to make that ploy work. Halicharan and Udanta are more of inverted forwards type than pure wingers. Hence with an inclination to drift in, they were struggling to stay wide, thus playing into Macau's hands.
This is where India's full-backs, Narayan Das and Pritam Kotal stepped up, and began peppering the box with crosses. Das from the left flank was India's best player in the first half, if not on the day, as he caused plenty of problems for the Macanese defence with his pin-point crosses with the half drawing to a close.
Jeje, who isn't the tallest member of the team though found it hard to make the most of it with at least two defenders marshalling him throughout the match.
Robin Singh, the tall and big centre-forward, and Jackichand Singh, a winger with a bagful of tricks up his sleeve, two players who were pretty much the need of the hour were on the bench. It was expected that Constantine would throw them on in the second half, but the Englishman who is known to back his players, didn't change the forward line he picked.
Instead, he added in-form striker Balwant Singh to the fray instead of Eugenson Lyngdoh. Both Narzary and Udanta remained tucked in and full-backs Das and Kotal almost played as wingers after the restart. The ploy to bombard the Macanese box with crosses was clear. With the extra body of Balwant, and one of Udanta or Narzary joining in to make it a three-ponged attack, the hosts suddenly had a few problems to deal with.
Eventually in the 57th minute from a Das cross, Balwant was able to get in between two Macanese defenders and head home to put India in front.
The Macanese defence had collapsed once their resistance was broken in their previous two games, and something similar was expected. India did have chances to trigger another such collapse, but instances of poor finishing meant the game remained in the balance.
The hosts didn't commit suicide by chasing the game, and remained in the game until the 82nd minute when a horrible mix-up between their defence and goalkeeper allowed Balwant to poke home his second and give India a two-goal cushion.
Constantine would be pretty pleased with the way his side responded to the questions they were asked by a resilient Macau outfit, but would be concerned by a lack of efficiency showed by his forward line. India who were largely untroubled in defence with Gurpreet Singh Sandhu being a mere spectator, that would have had little to desire had they earned a scoreline that portrayed their territorial dominance of their hosts.
However, with that win, India extended their fine unbeaten streak to 11 games to sit pretty on top of Group A with 9 points. They are yet to concede a goal in the qualifiers and with another tie against Macau to come next, India look good to book a spot in the Asian Cup.
Tougher tests await Constantine's men, firstly in the remaining qualifying matches and secondly, in what looks like a possible appearance in the Asian Cup finals. Till then, the coach will be keen to iron out the flaws one by one and present an Indian side at the finals that can win in more ways than one.
For FC Goa, this was the second such result in as many matches. The Goan side had also played out a goal-less draw against Qatar's Al Rayyan in their first Group E match on Wednesday.
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