Amidst the pouring rain and slippery surface, the Indian men’s football team achieved its eighth straight victory over a visiting Mauritius side, but only just.

Against an opponent ranked 160th in the world, Stephen Constantine’s men struggled at times, surviving a testy opening period before Robin Singh and Balwant Singh’s goals pushed them over the line against a feisty Mauritius side.

The visitors had taken an early lead in the 15th minute when Mervyn Jocelyn’s shot took a huge deflection off Anas Edathodika, wrong-footing stand-in goalkeeper Subrata Paul and giving his team the initial breakthrough.


Slow starters

“It (winning eight matches on a trot) will mean nothing unless we qualify for the AFC Asian Cup 2019. That’s where my goal lies and it will be so. I’m not a person who goes by the history. Be it 9, 10, 11, it matters little for me unless we achieve our target. Obviously, it’s important to win matches to continue the momentum. But, our main aim is to get into the right shape before taking on Macau and it’s still the same,” is what Stephen Constantine had to say after his team’s narrow escape.

In the upcoming matches for the national team, not only will qualification for the AFC Asian Cup 2019 be a bare minimum standard but assembling a team capable for competing at the continental stage than its predecessors, the 2011 batch, will also assume importance.

The rain and the lengthy break between international matches were possible factors in the Blue Tigers’ sluggish start but it has become a recurring theme for team India and while sides like Kyrgyzstan have shown intent but failed to capitalise on this pattern, Mauritius were in no mood to let the hosts’ sloppy play in the initial moments of the game go unpunished.

Take a look at the scoreline in each of those eight victories, 30 minutes into the game (India’s score to the left):

  • 0-0, away vs Laos
  • 0-1, home vs Laos
  • 2-1, home vs Puerto Rico
  • 0-0, away vs Cambodia
  • 0-0, away vs Myanmar
  • 0-0, home vs Nepal
  • 0-0, home vs Kyrgyzstan
  • 0-1, home vs Mauritius

The scorelines don’t reflect an accurate picture. In the Kyrgyzstan match, the away team hit the bar and against Nepal, the team had a couple of close escapes in the opening period.

Nothing seemed to work for the team in the first 15 minutes. The passing was wayward, with the link between midfield and the forward line seemingly broken and unable to string more than three passes together.

The pressing was lax, as there seemed to be a lack of coordination while pushing forward, leaving huge gaps to be exploited in midfield which Les Dodos penetrated with alarming ease.

Mauritius scored one goal, better teams will not be grounded down as easily and may finish the game off much more swiftly.

Balwant impressive off the bench

Robin, who seemed to be unable to get on the end of long balls or chips that the midfielders opted for in the initial stages of the game, burst into life as Rowllin Borges played a wonderful through ball for the forward.

The ATK striker took a touch, before slotting it past the keeper and celebrated with a roar. While he did bag his goal, the return of Bengaluru FC personnel Sunil Chhetri and Udanta Singh, should see him relegated to the bench.

Balwant, who replaced Robin at the break, was much more effective in combining with Jeje Lalpekhlua as his movement and presence gave the midfield with more options and channels in which to play the ball.

India’s second goal came about as Eugeneson Lyndoh’s ball found Jeje, whose delightful back-heel flick for former Mohun Bagan teammate Balwant saw the forward run with the ball before stroking home a finish, which took a touch off the opposition keeper before nestling into the far corner of the net.

Midfield imbalance

Lyngdoh though disappointed beside Borges as the Indian midfield was overrun at times while Holicharan Narzary and Jackichand Singh were unable to provide sufficient cover for their respective full-backs.

Borges late on, once again played a superb ball through to 22-year-old Manvir Singh, one of three debutants alongside Amrinder Singh and Nikhil Poojary, which the Santosh Trophy winning forward shot too high after the away keeper was off his line.

While Rowllin did his best to stem the flow of opposition attacks and create chances, it was too much of an ask of the Northeast United man to do both simultaneously. Mohammed Rafique’s addition, as Lyngdoh was taken off, added the urgency that was absent throughout the match as India pressed for a third.

The absence of an anchorman might have hurt India on another day. When fit, Pronay Halder makes a case while the relatively untested Milan Singh alongside Borges may provide some balance and steel to the midfield.

In the end, Mauritius almost snatched a late equaliser as the home team failed to clear their lines convincingly. The whistle finally came about, signalling an end to the match but left Constantine with much to ponder about.

Balwant and Rafique may end up as the biggest beneficiaries from this match, doing enough to show the boss that they could impact the game when brought on. Whether Constantine decides to tinker with the line-up or keep the same, will only be found out on Thursday against St. Kitts and Nevis.