India got their 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualifying campaign going with a 1-0 win over Myanmar in Yangon on Tuesday, with Sunil Chhetri scoring the winner in the last minute of regulation time. This gives them a huge impetus in the four-team Group A, where they are expected to compete with Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan for one of the two available spots for the 24-team event in the UAE two years from now, and also marks their first win over Myanmar in their backyard since October 1953.
But the Indian performance was far from perfect and coach Stephen Constantine will be aware of the areas to work on ahead of the next game in the campaign, at home to Kyrgyzstan on June 13.
Some frailties in the defence were exposed even when India beat Cambodia 3-2 in Phnom Penh last week -- especially in the combination of the centre-backs employed on the night. Anas Edathodika, who had made his debut against Cambodia, retained his place but had a new partner at the heart of the Indian defence in Sandesh Jhingan, who was one of four changes Constantine made in the starting line-up from last week.
Narayan Das was employed at left-back, a much more conventional choice than Fulganco Cardozo, who had done the same duty in Phnom Penh. There were several moments of indecision between the Indian defenders and the visitors could escape without being punished on the night because Kyaw Ko Ko couldn't locate his peak finishing prowess. Goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu was solid, too, and his decision-making off set-pieces was a big factor in mitigating the lacklustre performance from his defence.
Midfield slow off the blocks
India began the match with some fluent passing and possession, but then allowed the initiative to slip completely once Myanmar began pressing, and with good pace. Yan Naing Oo, Yan Aung Kyaw, Aung Si Thu formed a pacy midfield for the hosts, and striker Aung Thu began combining brilliantly with Ko, leaving the Indians rattled.
Most 50-50 balls dropped in favour of the hosts -- who maintained their intensity for the entirety of the game. Myanmar created the better openings, but were left to rue the number of times they shot or headed wide of Sandhu's goal. Even the goal they conceded was initiated when they had almost entirely moved into the Indian half. A swift bit of movement by substitute Udanta Singh, who had come on in place of striker Robin Singh, created the opening from which Chhetri scored a fantastic goal with a punishing first-time strike.
Profligacy in front of goal
India created several openings, particularly in the latter stages of the first half, but were hesitant in front of the Myanmar goal. One of the best chances fell to winger Jackichand Singh, when Robin whipped a ball across the face of the goalkeeper and past a couple of defenders. But Jackichand couldn't get in good shape for what would have been an easy tap-in.
Even in the second half, Chhetri and Udanta got close to finding the perfect places to shoot from, but were either guilty of snatching at the ball or taking the wrong decision. Udanta went for glory when he was one of three Indian players bearing down on goal and perhaps should have laid a square pass for any of his other teammates moving forward.
Myanmar surprised India with their pace, and often made the Indian defenders look inept. In the first half, Sandesh Jhingan mocked the referee from Chinese Taipei by applauding him on being shown a yellow card after bringing down a player from Myanmar at the edge of the penalty box.
To be fair, Yu Ming Hsun appeared to be in a generous mood when it came to awarding fouls to Myanmar, and brushed away a couple of strong penalty appeals when the Indian players fell inside the home side's box. Yet, there was a lot of frustration on display from the Indian camp. Eugeneson Lyngdoh and Chhetri also earned yellow cards for themselves, and Das was perhaps lucky to escape censure in spite of a couple of poor tackles.
Changes that clicked
Constantine should be credited for making proactive changes when India were still level. The first of the changes was Udanta for Robin, and that meant India went from a 4-3-3 to a more conventional 4-4-1-1 -- with Jackichand dropping to the left flank to accommodate Udanta on the right.
When it became clear that Myanmar were throwing the kitchen sink at the Indians -- with striker Maung Maung Lwin coming on for defender Phyo Ko Ko Thein -- Constantine sent in Dhanpal Ganesh to replace Rowllin Borges to anchor the midfield. And then the coach's third change was a positive one: by taking Jackichand out to put in Holicharan Narzary, he injected a bit of pace and energy in the attacking line.
For the longest part of the game, Myanmar's verve and vigour meant India were left either chasing shadows or just struggling to keep pace. But the visitors fought till the proverbial end and came away with three valuable points that have now set them up perfectly on the road to the UAE.