India head to Macau for the third round of AFC Asian Cup 2019 qualifiers with one eye on early progress, even as their opponents look to rack up their first points in this ongoing campaign.
Macau are ranked 183rd in the world and should pose a significantly lesser challenge for India than Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan did, being the weakest side in the group.
Yet, Stephen Constantine’s men cannot afford to take anything for granted following the 1-1 draw at home to the 160th-ranked St Kitts and Nevis. Yes, that was without the presence of key Bengaluru FC players including skipper Sunil Chhetri and goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu but Constantine will know that India were sloppy in Mumbai.
Nine points is what India will have, if they beat Macau on Tuesday. Given that two teams qualify from each group, 10 is what the magic mark will likely be if the Blue Tigers have to reach UAE 2019, and there is no greater initiative for the team to win their match tomorrow.
Two of their matches post Macau are at home but an early confirmation of their participation in the continental extravaganza will ensure that the Englishman has plenty of time to rotate his squad in order and blood in youngsters in time for the Asian Cup.
The recently concluded Tri-Nation tournament did witness the debut of a few more players, including Anirudh Thapa, who along with five other members of the India Under-23 team that put up a fighting show in the U-23 AFC Championships qualifiers, has been called up.
A winning streak of eight games has been snapped and it has come at a good time, if there indeed exists such a thing. The hasty efforts put in to arrange the three-team international friendly tournament in Mumbai at a great cost indicates that the importance of this match has been noted.
Macau aren’t in the greatest of form and haven’t won a match since the AFC Solidarity Cup last year. Incidentally, that was the last time they netted a goal, having lost their last four games without scoring any.
Their last match, a friendly against Hong Kong on September 2, ended 4-0 to the latter. Their qualifying campaign got off on a somewhat positive note, culminating in a narrow 1-0 defeat to Kyrgyzstan in Bishkek. But the next game, away against Myanmar, saw them thrashed 4-0 by the home side, on the same ground where India registered a 1-0 victory in their opener.
Constantine, however, is cautious. “I feel Macau were a bit unlucky against the Kyrgyz Republic,” he mentioned. “But we are here to play our game and we need to concentrate on ourselves. It’s true that we are at the top of the table at the moment but we need to work harder if we are to stay there,” he warns.
For the home side, captain Paulo Cheang Leong is one of the most important players and the most capped ever for Macau. He will looking to pull the strings in midfield, alongside Edgar Teixeira.
The Bengaluru FC trio of Chhetri, Gurpreet and Udanta Singh will return some much needed-stability to the team, both upfront and at the back. Gurpreet’s run of clean sheets for club and country continued in his first appearance for his new side Bengaluru FC, in their AFC Cup Inter-Zonal semi-final match against North Korean side April 25 SC.
Pritam Kotal, Anas Edathodika and Sandesh Jhingan are expected to get the nod in defence, while the left-back spot remains a tight competition between Jerry Lalrinzuala and Narayan Das. Constantine has preferred to use the latter but Jerry’s presence in the AFC U23 team plus his performance in the ISL and I-League season will have convinced the coach that the youngster is ready for the next step.
India’s midfield troubles haven’t gone undocumented and Rowllin Borges is possibly the only player with an assured spot as a deep-lying playmaker. Jackichand Singh may start out wide while Mohammed Rafique has been mostly used as a sub. However, he has provided some much-needed combativeness in the middle of the park.
The return of Udanta may also see him on the opposite flank as Chhetri, with Jeje Lalpekhlua expected to lead the line. Balwant Singh did well when called upon in Mumbai, and may be do so again if he is sent in during the dying minutes of the game.
A win in the so-called Las Vegas of Asia is at the top of the priority list for India’s senior team. They are less likely to want to roll the dice against their opponents and leave things to chance come Tuesday. It may not come easy, but going by current form, the team should get the job done.