AFC Asian Cup qualifiers: India's bid for continental identity faces tough test from 'bogey team' Myanmar
India are looking to realise their dream of qualification for the AFC Asian Cup, but perennial 'bogey team' Myanmar stands in their way,
1950s. A time when India held an envious stature in Asian football. A time when an Indian football team was considered worthy enough to play a World Cup in Brazil. Often hailed as the golden age for football in India, it was also a time that produced their last win on Myanmar's soil, something the Indian team of 2017 will look to emulate when they travel to Yangon to play an Asian Cup Qualifying game on 28 March.
Myanmar have had their share of glory days too. The south-east Asian nation won gold medal in the Asian Games in 1966 before successfully defending it four years later. These twin triumphs sandwiched a runners-up finish at the Asian Cup. It was also during that period when the national team picked up five Southeast Asian Games gold medals, a tally that's unaltered till date.
However, deep down in their list of footballing accolades is one record that Myanmar would be particularly proud of &mdash a handsome head-to-head lead over India.
Myanmar have faced India 17 times in the past, with India winning on just four occasions. Their south-eastern neighbours on the other hand have got the better of them ten times. Despite India's indigent records against most teams in world football, their poor numbers against Myanmar makes them one of their biggest 'bogey teams'.
The general trend of results between the two sides was extended the last time the two sides met four years ago. Myanmar registered a 1-0 win on home soil in the same competition as the upcoming fixture on Tuesday.
"History will show that the same players are not always playing. The situations are always different and both teams would be playing after a long gap. I feel the circumstances are always different," Indian coach Stephen Constantine said ahead of the game, suggesting his side would be looking for a fresh start against their neighbours.
"But at the same time, I cannot deny history; in fact, nobody can. But we can't bring it back. Yesterday will always stay yesterday and at the same time, today is an another day," he added.
Heading into the Group A opener of the 2019 Asian Cup final qualifying round, India will start the match 40 ranks above Myanmar in the latest Fifa rankings. Constantine's men will feel confident of getting a positive result having developed a habit of winning games lately with their last five encounters ending in triumph, a run which started from the twin victories over Laos in the Asian Cup play-offs. The same cannot be said about India's opponents who have lost two of their last five matches. However, they would be boosted by a 3-1 away win against Indonesia's U-22 side on 21 March.
Myanmar's recent defeats came home and away to a strong Thailand side, apart from which the team will have fond memories of victories against Malaysia and Cambodia, the latter being a team which India beat 3-2 in a friendly last week, making it their fifth straight win.
The perception though, despite a low Fifa ranking is that Myanmar are on the rise under German coach Gerd Zeise, and their overall play has vastly improved. Myanmar play with a high intensity and often press teams high up the pitch. It is a style of play that suits their energetic players, who can be a real handful with the fans behind them.
"Myanmar are definitely the favourites. Playing at home is always an advantage for any team. They have been together for some time and the familiarity with each other is so much beneficial when you take the field. They certainly have the advantage," Constantine said two days ahead of the crucial match.
Asked what was Myanmar's biggest strength, he said, "They work very hard and love to press. When you combine the two with the ability they have and add the crowd and atmosphere to it, the combination is just deadly."
India lost all of their away games in the World Cup qualifying campaign, and hence Constantine handing the hosts the favourites tag seems to have more to it than pure mind games. Even in the last game against Cambodia, India were often overrun in midfield and were fortunate to leave Phnom Pehn with a win. The home side had a flurry of chances, but a lack of efficiency at both ends cost them the game.
The Blue Tigers were far from their best, and one can't help but feel that a similar performance in Yangon would most likely lead to a negative result for the visitors. With the top two teams from the group qualifying for the finals in UAE in 2019, a team isn't necessarily required to win away from home, provided the home form is good. A point on the road could be considered as a bonus, if a team can conjure maximum points at home. These permutations certainly hold true for India's group which consists of four evenly-matched teams that are all competing with a belief that they can qualify. So it is vital that you stop your rival team from gaining points at home, to ultimately aid your own chances.
"We believe we have a chance to qualify for the finals and so does Myanmar and so does every team in the group. Hence it is vital not to lose our first game," said Constantine.
"India can beat anybody on their day. But that does not mean that you cannot have a bad day. Sometimes there are good days sometimes there are bad days. That is football," he added.
India, who have enough ammunition to win the contest in Yangon, will be hoping their big guns step up to the plate. It will be interesting to see what shape Constantine opts to go with. The biggest dilemma for the Englishman would be upfront, where he could either opt to go with Jeje Lalpekhlua and Robin Singh as a pair, or just play the latter as the lone striker and shore up the midfield to play safe.
While there are no prizes for guessing that Gurpreet Singh Sandhu will start in goal for India, Constantine will have some thinking to do while picking his backline. Sandesh Jhingan and Anas Edathodika impressed as a pair in the second half against Cambodia and could get the nod ahead of Arnab Mondal. Pritam Kotal, who has been a regular at right back, would most likely continue in that role, while Narayan Das could be restored at the left back position.
Rowlin Borges is the man that provides cover for that defense and Constantine's selections over the past year have shown that he completely trusts the East Bengal midfielder. Eugenson Lyngdoh, whose form has been patchy of late, could still retain his place as the team's chief creator at the center of the park.
Meanwhile, Jackichand Singh who has done well for the national team under Constantine, played a part in India's win in Cambodia and hence could earn a starting spot along side captain Sunil Chhetri who could be deployed as a wide man or a number 10 depending on the formation which the Indian coach decides to go with.
Myanmar would most probably line-up in their favoured 4-2-3-1 formation, with youngster Aungh Thu leading the line. He was a part of their U-20 team that qualified for the World Cup and is one of the home side's hottest prospects. Kyaw Ko Ko is another player who the Indians would be wary of. The left-footed forward is one of the experienced players for the hosts having made his debut for the senior team back in 2010.
India will be careful not to repeat the same mistakes they made the last time they faced Myanmar, and would be hoping to start their qualifying campaign on a positive note. A favourable draw has given India a great chance to reach the Asian Cup, and achieving that goal will be a huge step forward for Indian football.
It will not only mean improvement in rankings, but also an opportunity to gain recognition as a force in Asian football. India, who were once considered giants of the Asian game, are now battling for an identity in that space. A run in the continent's biggest competition would certainly help their cause. India aren't far away from realising their dream of qualification, but if they decide to look that far now, it could prove costly, especially with their perennial 'bogey team' Myanmar standing in their way.
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