AFC Asian Cup qualifiers: India stretch unbeaten streak but complacency hurt them against Myanmar

A 2-2 draw against Myanmar in front of empty stands at the Fatorda Stadium in Goa helped India stretch their unbeaten streak to thirteen games, yet there were signs of complacency, a trait which has plagued Indian football for years.

Having already qualified for the AFC Asian Cup with their 4-1 win against Macau, in Stephen Constantine’s own words, Tuesday’s game was “the first step in preparation towards the Asian Cup which is precisely 14 months away”. But India failed to make their mark as they decorated the game with a flurry of chances but did not dominate Myanmar.

India's Sandesh Jhingan thwarts a Myanmar attack during their AFC Asian Cup qualifier on Tuesday. PTI

India's Sandesh Jhingan thwarts a Myanmar attack during their AFC Asian Cup qualifier on Tuesday. PTI

Fans were still settling into their seats when Ya Naing Oo gave Myanmar the lead with just thirteen seconds on the clock. The visitors pulled off a classic attacking manoeuvre as the Indian defence failed to read an inch-perfect cross from Myanmar’s left flank — Naing Oo was allowed a free-header while youngster Jerry Lalrinzuala, making his full-debut for the senior side was guilty of ball-watching.

The early goal spurred on the visitors as India rarely had the ball in the first ten minutes. Starved off possession, defensive mistakes started cropping up with the central defensive pairing of Sandesh Jhingan and Anas Edathodika looking rather unsure of themselves whenever Myanmar pressed forward.

Sunil Chhetri would equalise soon with a well-taken penalty after he was brought down with a rash challenge in the box. The game was epitomised by schoolboy errors from the defensive units of both nations in the early exchanges and the theme would continue for Myanmar’s second goal when Gurpreet Singh Sandhu fluffed Kyaw Ko Ko’s shot to gift the visitors a slim lead.

That would be the last of Myanmar’s clear-cut goalscoring chances as Gerd Zeise’s team failed to create much for the remainder of the game — although a draw would not help their qualification prospects, the visitors seemed to be content with the result especially once the Indian forwards started asserting themselves.

“It was a game where we could have scored five or six goals. Myanmar fought hard. We were a bit sloppy at the start and we paid for that,” Constantine lamented after the game and rightly so. Jeje Lalpekhlua’s equaliser at the 69th minute restored the balance in the scoreline but it was a long time coming for the hosts who constantly probed and prodded in the attacking third, but were impeded by a poor final product.

Lalpekhlua scored a goal of the highest calibre when he trapped Eugeneson Lyngdoh’s well-floated ball and placed it sublimely past a diving Thiha Sithu, but it was a rare moment of magic for the Indians who lack a genuine playmaker in their ranks. Rowllin Borges’ absence in the central midfield played into Myanmar’s hands for the Indian midfield looked short of ideas at certain crucial junctures of play.

“At the moment, it's one of the best times with India. After all the nonsense that has been written, the players have shown 100 percent that they are ready to play and do the job,” Constantine declared after the game but behind all the glitz which comes with an unbeaten streak in international football, lies the stark reality that India are yet to fulfill their true potential — technically and tactically.

A settled defensive unit, a flourishing midfield setup, two of Asia’s finest goalscorers in Jeje and Chhetri — India boasts of a decent squad, yet the performances flatter to deceive at times, as was the case against Myanmar. For all their work ethic, India look slack in games against lower-quality opponents, when they should rather impose themselves.

“We have this bad habit of starting very slow. We were lucky that we didn't pay for it this time. Against better teams, we will pay,” acknowledged Constantine. “We sometimes have this bad habit of playing to the level of our opponent,” added India’s head coach. While this flaw in how the national team approaches such games has been acknowledged repeatedly over the years, not much has been done to rectify it.

The mistakes are as much psychological as they are technical — while lacking creative flair is a trait most sides in world football are guilty of, India must develop fortitude of winning games, especially when they are the superior team — on paper and on the pitch.

A lot of work is necessary behind the scenes for Constantine’s men to flourish in the AFC Asian Cup — they have the luxury of time but unless the performances pick up consistently, India will most definitely struggle against opponents of higher pedigree, in spite of their well-rounded squad and an impressive record of going undefeated in the qualification play-offs.

Updated Date: Nov 15, 2017 12:27 PM

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