Another day, another win for India. In what is turning out to be a dream run for the Blue Tigers, the Indian team is currently on an impressive 11-match unbeaten streak after their commanding display against Macau that saw the visitors register a 2-0 away win on matchday 3 of the AFC Asian Cup qualifying rounds. A third win on the trot in the AFC Asian Cup qualifying rounds has put the Blues in pole position to qualify for UAE 2019.
The fixture was a bit of a mismatch for Macau had lost both their previous qualifying matches coming up against an Indian side who had lived up to their billing of being the group toppers. The Blue Tigers went into the game on the back of 10-match unbeaten streak and made short work of their opponents. Following up from their hard fought 1-0 win against Kyrgyzstan in their last qualifying match, the Blues created an array of opportunities and will consider themselves unlucky to be walking away from the match by scoring only two goals.
A trend for the past few games
As has been the story with both of India’s previous qualifying games, it was again a case of a clinical second half display that saw India walk away with all 3 points. Previously, India beat Myanmar 1-0 with a 90th-minute strike from Sunil Chhetri and beat Kyrgyzstan 1-0 with a 69th-minute sublime effort from the captain again. India now stands clear at the top of the group with 9 points from 3 games thanks to the substitute striker, Balwant Singh’s, brace.
Stephen Constantine returned to his trusted starting eleven that won 1-0 against Kyrgyzstan and India started the first half strongly keeping hold of possession and moving the ball around quickly. As the match began to take shape, it became apparent that 183-rd ranked Macau had a minimal intention of actually pressing the Indian team to look for scoring opportunities. Their game plan was to defend for 90 minutes and walk away with a point. Realizing Macau’s lack of attacking intent, India began to press higher up the field and created more opportunities.
As the first half progressed, India created a flurry of chances, failing to convert any of them.
Chhetri who was man-marked by the Macau defence dropped deep to collect the ball and was actively involved in most of the attacks India created. In the tenth minute Chhetri beautifully lobbed a ball through for Udanta Singh in the box, but the Bengaluru FC winger failed to connect. As the match progressed, the Indian fullbacks Pritam Kotal and Narayan Das started bombarding down the flanks and sending in an array of crosses to break down the Macau defence.
Attempts to break a defensive strategy
Macau stuck to their game plan and defended deep in their half with their midfielders dropping down to provide extra protection for their busy defenders. As the half hour mark approached, Chhetri had a shot ricochet off the far post. The Indian players were getting busier. Six minutes to half time saw a screamer from Eugenesen Lyngdoh rattle the crossbar, but still, the deadlock was not broken. Lalpekhlua’s evening of frustration became worse as he controlled another easy delivery in the box just at the stroke of half-time.
A super substitute
The second half saw the introduction of Balwant Singh who replaced Eugenesen Lyngdoh. As the crosses from the flanks kept barging in, India wasted another opportunity to go ahead in the 52nd minute, this time Sunil Chhetri directing a free header straight into the arms of the keeper. The much-awaited breakthrough finally came in the 57th minute when Narayan Das sent in a delightful ball into the box from the left flank, just beyond the first defender to find Balwant Singh’s head who jumped his time to perfection to give India the lead. India’s goal brought little or no change to Macau’s game as they continued to invest all their effort to keep the Indians at bay.
Buoyed by their opponents’ lack of desire to search for an equalizer, India stepped on the gas to kill the match by scoring the second goal. Balwant could have completed his hat-trick by the 80th minute, but he wasted two glorious chances (both headers) as India continued to look for their second goal. Finally, in the 82nd minute, Balwant took advantage of some comical defending and lobbed the ball into an empty net to score his second of the night and give India a comfortable 2-0 lead.
Another determined second half display saw India win their third match of the qualifiers. Although manager Constantine has reasons to be satisfied with his team’s unbeaten streak, he will surely be looking into the fact that India needs to buckle up their first half displays. Football is a game of two halves and not every team will be as generous as Macau in allowing the Indians to set up shop outside their box to look for goals for both the halves.
India will have to make a faster and more clinical start and definitely learn to take the chances that come their way in the coming matches. The good news for the fans is that Constantine knows how to practice caution with praise, as was evident in his review of Balwant, “He scored two goals tonight. He did what he was asked to. He could have scored four but I will take two”.