The dream has come true! Sunil Chhetri and Balwant Singh inspire a dominant India to a second half goal-scoring spree.
India trounced Macau 4-1 in an AFC Asian Cup Qualifying match played at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru on Wednesday. The comfortable win also confirmed their place at the tournament to be held in the United Arab Emirates in 2019.
India started with their familiar shape and 10 of the starting XI from the reverse fixture played a few weeks ago also kept their place in the starting XI. The only change saw Jackichand Singh coming in for Udanta Singh on the right wing.
The hosts started fast off the blocks in the pouring rain as captain Sunil Chhetri darted down the right in the first two minutes and got an inviting cross in which was cleared for a corner. The set-piece was worked short before Eugeneson Lyngdoh floated it in towards the two centre-backs, but both failed to get a meaningful touch before the referee blew his whistle. Two minutes later, Jeje Lalpekhlua and Chhetri combined nicely in the final third before the opposition keeper beat the Indian talisman to the ball.
The wet weather conditions made it difficult for both teams to retain possession for a sustained spell but in the 17th minute, Sandesh Jhingan fouled an opponent to concede a free-kick which was blazed over by Chan Chun. Four minutes later, Lao Kin fouled the India skipper when it looked like he was through on goal. But, the No. 6 was lucky to escape with just a yellow and Chhetri blazed over from the set-piece.
Then, the game picked up momentum again after a pair of attacks from the hosts. First, Pritam Kotal bombarded down the right and blazed in a cross which turned into a shot and had the keeper scurrying. Soon after, Jackichand clipped in a ball from the right, but the keeper got to it first even as Chhetri attacked.
India finally got the breakthrough they deserved close to the half-hour mark when Rowlin Borges’ clipped ball towards Lalpekhlua deflected into the net. On 33 minutes, Kotal again produced a peach of a delivery to Holicharan Narzary at the far post, but his header was straight at keeper Ho Man Fai. However, there was to be a twist in the tale as Macau equalized against the run of play. A cross from the right by Chan Chun caught Kotal napping, allowing Nicholas Tarrao to convert.
A stunned India stirred again and looked to equalize straight from the restart. A cross from Kotal saw Lalpekhlua lay it off for Chhetri when he should have shot himself and the chance was gone. The Tigers had another couple of chances, but with no more goals, both teams went into the break level at 1-1.
India started the second half with manager Stephen Constantine making an attacking change as winger Jackichand was replaced by frontman Balwant Singh. The Blue Tigers also started with a different shape with Chhetri moving left, while Narzary went right with Balwant joining Lalpekhlua up top.
By the restart of the action, the rain had gone but the half rolled along in lukewarm fashion until the Tigers forced a series of corners in the 55th minute. In the second of these, Lyngdoh’s inch-perfect delivery from the right was met by Sandesh Jhingan’s powerful header, only for it to be acrobatically tipped over by Man Fai. Three minutes later, Carlos Fernandes tried a shot from distance which had Gurpreet Singh Sandhu worried.
INDIA 4-1 MACAU: India qualifies for the AFC Asian Cup 2019
India retook the lead on the hour when Balwant strode down the right and picked out Chhetri near the penalty spot and the Skipper sent the home supporters into raptures. Three minutes on, a bit of miscommunication at the back between Jhingan and Anas Edathodika almost allowed the visitors to level again before Kotal mopped up on the cover. Straight down the other end on the counter, Balwant tried to round the on-rushing Man Fai when he could have gone for the audacious chip with the shot-stopper off his line.
With 25 minutes to go, Constantine brought on Mohammed Rafique for Borges to freshen up the midfield and five minutes later that paid defends as the inverted winger Narzary fizzed in a square ball into the box which deflected off the unfortunate Lam Seng and past the despairing Man Fai into the top corner.
A rare Macau shot on goal came in the 75 minute when Fernandes unleashed another shot from distance but straight at Sandhu. There was a momentous moment as the energetic Salam Ranjan Singh came on for his India debut replacing Edathodika.
The last 10 minutes seemed to be passing off without incident until an Indian chance on 88 minutes. Narzary strode forward and found Chhetri who laid it off to Lalpekhlua, but he continues to misfire. Unexpectedly, the Mizo frontman got the reward for his persistence as Chhetri picked him out to make it 4-1 in second half added time.
The historic win means the Blue Tigers have now gone 12 games unbeaten since the loss to Turkmenistan in March 2016 and remain perfect in qualifying with 12 points from four games. They next face Myanmar at home in November.