Turning a listless first-half display around against a less-fancied opponent, India sealed qualification for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup with a 4-1 win over Macau, thanks to goals from Rowllin Borges, Sunil Chhetri, Jeje Lalpekhlua and an own goal from Lam Ka Seng at the Kanteerva Stadium, Bengaluru on Wednesday. Nicholas Tarrao scored for Macau in the first half, to take the two teams to half-time at 1-1.
India stay top of the table in Group A, maintaining a perfect record of four wins from four matches, and with 12 points, only one of Kyrgyzstan and Myanmar -- both of whom have four points from three matches -- can overtake them on points in their qualification group.
India coach Stephen Constantine made one change from the eleven that beat Macau 2-0 away in the corresponding fixture on September 5. With Udanta Singh making way for Jackichand Singh, India lined up more as 4-4-2.
The heavy underfoot conditions made for a sluggish opening quarter of the game, with the only realistic chances for India to score falling to Chhetri, once when he nearly met a hopeful ball that was played into the Macau box, but was denied by some alert goalkeeping from Ho Man Fai. In the 20th minute, Chhetri was pulled down to the ground just outside the Macau box, and Lao Pak Kin was shown a yellow card for his foul. The Indian captain, though, couldn't keep his free-kick on target.
In the 28th minute, Narayan Das created some space on the left flank and floated a ball in for Jeje, who then played in Borges. Borges was looking to curl it towards the left of Fai, but a deflection off central midfielder Lam Ngai Tong carried it into the Macau net on the other side, wrong-footing the Macau goalkeeper.
Macau, who were content to sit back for most of the game, got one chance in the first half to attack Gurpreet Sandhu's goal, and they made it count. A ball from the right found its way to Tarrao, who was able to squeeze in between the Indian centre-backs Anas Edathodika and Sandesh Jhingan to bring up his country's first goal in qualification, as also the first conceded by the hosts.
India made a switch at half-time, with Balwant Singh replacing Jackichand, and India were then able to put more players into attack. In the 56th minute, Jhingan came close to scoring with a good header off a Eugeneson Lyngdoh corner, but his attempt was tipped over by Fai. Four minutes later, Balwant picked up a loose ball on the right and created some space for himself before sending in a perfectly weighted ball for Chhetri to notch up his third goal of the qualification campaign.
Ten minutes later, Holicharan Narzary, operating on the right after the rearrangement of the Indian formation, curled a cross in from the right with his left foot, and Seng miscued his clearance, straight over goalkeeper Fai's reach and into the net to put the issue beyond doubt.
Then, in the second minute of injury time, Jeje scored after being fed in from the left by Chhetri.
India may have got the result on the night, but their defending on the whole was inconsistent, allowing strikers Tarrao and Carlos Leonel several sights of Sandhu's goal.
India play their next qualifier at home against Myanmar on November 14, before rounding off their qualification campaign against Kyrgyzstan away on March 27.