AFC Asian Cup qualifiers: India's win over Myanmar indicative of improvements since Guam debacle
Away wins against Cambodia and Myanmar show that India has flushed out a Guam-like performance from their systems. It translates to little progress, but it's progress nonetheless.
India's football team has been making the headlines recently for all the right reasons for once, and competing fairly well with its much-celebrated cricket team for space in the media in the last 10 days. While both the teams have etched themselves into history books of their respective sports, the achievements of the cricket side have received far more accolades in the cricketing sphere, while the football team's achievements which have little significance in world football.
India won two away football matches in the last 10 days, breaking age-old jinxes the team endured on their travels. A 3-2 win in Cambodia was their first ever victory in an international friendly in twelve years, while a 1-0 win against Myanmar on Tuesday ended their 64-year-long wait for a win on Myanmar soil.
As historic as the wins may seem, it's difficult to look beyond the fact that both these teams are weaker and find themselves more than 40 ranks below India in the Fifa rankings. So the general emotion following the wins is more of relief than pure joy. However, it wasn't long ago when India were losing to Guam in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, a team which was then ranked 174 in the world.
While it's some task finding the country on the map, considering it's miniature size, their stature in global football has never been great. But much to the shock of their fans, the Blue Tigers suffered a shock 2-1 defeat in Guam, when they faced them in June 2015.
The result attracted plenty of criticism from all across the country and the team never really recovered from it. They finished bottom of their qualification group, despite being the third-seeded team at the start of the campaign.
Guam since are yet to win a competitive match. They are currently winless in 10 games post the India win, and have lost nine of those matches, having scored just four goals. Those games does include a 1-0 defeat to India in India, but that down to Guam being reduced to 10-men in that encounter. India scraped through that game and Guam were unlucky not to get something out of it.
The national coach Stephen Constantine deflected the negative reaction coming after the defeat by pointing out that Guam had a number of American citizens of Guam origin playing for them, some of them who practised their trade in the Major League Soccer (MLS) leagues. He also suggested India to have PIOs (Person of Indian origin) playing for their team to give them a better chance of competing at the world level.
However, the sports ministry made it clear almost immediately that such an idea won't be entertained.
Constantine has since put faith in a certain group of players that he feels could serve India well for a considerable amount of future. These players have the potential to be good enough players at the Asian level at least.
A little less than two years after that embarrassing defeat to Guam, Constantine's trusted set of players have started to at least deliver results, if not the performances. In the end, the result is all that matters in football. However, for a country like India to prosper as a footballing nation, the level of performances of its team is also a matter of great importance.
India have now won six matches in a row, and eight out of their previous 10 games. Even though most of those wins have come against lesser teams, apart from the one against Puerto Rico, it's still an upgrade since the time Constantine took over as manager. There have been times when the team has scraped through, and hasn't performed to the level which the coach expects them to, but they also haven't managed to avoid lows like Guam.
India also reached a decade-high ranking of 129 in January this year, although it was as much down to a strategic move by the AIFF to skip a couple of international dates, as it was due to the team's improved results.
However, while watching the Blue Tigers play in the last two away games, one got a feeling that the team was fitter compared to what we have seen in the past. India managed to maintain a good intensity and work rate for the length of the 90 minutes, something which wasn't the case not so long ago. India were excellent against Oman when they played them at home in the opening game of the World Cup qualifiers, but couldn't maintain the level of performance and sharpness that was needed to force a draw.
Constantine's men had their share of worries in both the away matches played, when the opponents had spells of possession in their half. In Cambodia, the home side peppered the hosts' box with plenty of crosses, and the Indian rearguard dealt with those with visible composure.
India were put under considerably less pressure in Myanmar, but it was also a result of the entire team putting in a shift, and providing better protection to the back four. It's another factor which the Indians improved from the Cambodia game.
The quality in India's play might not have gone up greatly since the game in Guam, but the players certainly play with a greater intensity and look more like a unit. Unlike earlier, the team seems to be confident enough of going for a win away from home despite being just minutes away from securing a draw, which would otherwise have been a very decent result for them.
"Myanmar had several chances to score, but we showed great spirit on the field. We never gave up mentally and that aided us in our win. We had three to four chances in the match, but we could only take the one in the end. It was a very tight game and boys showed fantastic spirit to earn the win," Constantine said after the game.
Captain Sunil Chhetri echoed his coach's thoughts caling the Myanmar win an "immense result". "It was a huge game for us. Myanmar at home are always difficult to play. We had lost last time here but we supported each other till the end and getting three points is an immense result for us," he said.
Jeje Lalpekhlua hailed the "unity" the team had, and the string of results that the team has pulled off in recent times certainly provide weight to Jeje's claims.
While the Indian coach received some stick from the fans for what they felt were negative tactics that delayed the winning goal, he deserves credit for making the best possible use of his squad, keeping in mind the team's strength and weaknesses. The Indian team doesn't have too many technically-strong players, and hence playing a possession-based game wasn't something they could have done, especially away from home.
India's long-ball tactics didn't work perfectly in the game, but that was due to the form of their strikers. Robin Singh is still finding his touch after coming back from injury, while Jeje is having a rare blip in form. Both these players have done exceedingly well for India under Constantine, and with the Englishman's tendency to always back his players, it wasn't surprising he went with the duo in such a crucial game.
To the coach's credit, he changed his approach by putting Udanta Singh in place of Robin after the hour mark, and the substitution did eventually make the telling impact.
In Cambodia too, Constantine threw in Jeje and Sandesh Jhingan at half-time and both of them scored within ten minutes of the restart. It just goes to show the knowledge the English coach has of his players, and also the variety of options he has developed over the last two years.
There is still lot of work for Constantine and India to do, to claim they have made marked progress since he took over, but recent results, and especially away wins against Cambodia and Myanmar show that India has flushed out a Guam-like performance from their system. That translates to little progress, but it's progress nonetheless.
Head coach Igor Stimac said the next three matches of the qualifying campaign will provide a chance to the Indian players to gauge "where they stand against their generation" of other Asian countries.
The lack of preparatory camps and the impact of a short domestic calendar are issues that need to be sorted out soon for the Indian national team to prosper.
With his strike, the 37-year-old Chhetri equalled Messi and became the second highest gaol-scorer in international football among active players.