Balwant Singh will be a happy man today. The forward, who has had a stop-start career, is finally finding his feet on the international scene and he is no doubt, the big positive that has come out of this international break, first netting the winner against Mauritius and now a brace against Macau.

Tonight’s goals were more important as it pushed India to the edge of Asian Cup qualification, for what will be only their third campaign in history. On the basis of their game against Macau, there is a lot of work to be done as Sunil Chhetri admitted after the game.

Qualification this time around will be hard-earned and more dearly valued than the last time it happened, in 2011. Teams like Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar and now Macau have given Stephen Constantine a lot to think about but credit to the team where it’s due. Banana skins of the past have turned into hard-fought wins, but wins none the less as the team’s new core slowly builds up to the 2019 challenge.

India started with their standard 4-2-3-1 formation with Udanta Singh drafted into their line-up at the expense of Jackichand Singh with Halicharan Narzary patrolling the other flank. Having beaten their two previous opponents in the group, the question going into this match against the weakest side in their draw was not if, but how many.

Yet, Macau managed to dent India and Constantine’s expectations in the first half, with resolute defending, the line-up resembling a 9-1-0 formation. The Greens sat so deep in their own half that India’s defenders and in particular, Gurpreet Singh, were more than mere spectators and more passers-by in their own match.

Chhetri, at one point, was livid with the full-backs, asking them for more precise deliveries in the final third as crosses were wayward in the first half, as Jeje Lalpekhlua tried in vain to convert a couple of chances that fell his way.

Yet, with a strategy that involved pumping the ball into the box, the Macanese area should have been overloaded with more players than just Jeje and Chhetri. Eugeneson did hit the crossbar at the fag end of the half, and Constantine, like viewers back home, knew that a change was required.

Enter Balwant. The 30-year-old has always shown intelligent movement when called for, and has experienced something of a resurgent season under Sanjoy Sen at Mohun Bagan. Now with Mumbai City, Balwant’s second bite at the national team cherry finally arrived at the Tri-Nation tournament, one which he took with glee.

Constantine had two choices at half-time; he could have opted for Robin Singh, the big, burly striker, who would have given him an aerial option or the smarter, faster Balwant. As it turned out, Balwant turned out to be somewhat of an aerial expert himself, winning almost every header in the opposition box.

The first, arriving through a Narayan Das cross, found the forward bang in the middle of the box, and he headed it into the far corner to give the Blue Tigers a lead, which they had been desperately crying out for.

It also spoke volumes about Robin and Constantine’s patience with the big striker from ATK. For so long trusted through thick and thin, Balwant’s presence gives the Englishman another option which he was only glad to take. Robin may have scored against Mauritius, but he, at the moment, does not possess the movement of Balwant and the upcoming ISL season will be a hugely massive one for the former, from an Asian Cup perspective.

Post Narayan’s delivery, Pritam Kotal stepped up his crossing game and delivered two fizzing curlers onto Balwant’s head; the Punjabi forward could have had three or even more on another night.

The rest of the game progressed at pedestrian pace as it was clear that Macau wanted to avoid a heavy margin of defeat and India were happy to take the three points home. The second came towards the end, when Gurpreet Singh launched a long goal-kick, causing panic among the opposition defenders but Balwant still had to be alert to put it away.

Jeje and Balwant had combined well against Mauritius and the Mumbai City man is undoubtedly the big story of the fortnight. Constantine will be a relieved man after a slip-up against Mauritius.

A win against Macau on 10th October will seal a place in UAE and the camp will be gung-ho for the fixture. First, a tough test against Palestine awaits, one in which the team will face their sternest test for a year and more. There is new-found belief and there are a lot more to tests to pass before Asian heavyweights can be dealt with.