The India national team remained unbeaten in their qualification campaign for the Asian Football Confederation's (AFC) Asian Cup 2019, scheduled to be held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in 2019, with a rollercoaster 2-2 win against group A rivals Myanmar, at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Goa, on Tuesday.
The Burmese looked to have shocked Stephen Constantine's men in the very first minute of the game, when Naing Oo Yan headed in his effort, after rising above everyone in the home side's box. India responded through captain Chhetri, who earned and converted a penalty just after the first quarter of the half. That sense of calm would soon be disrupted again through Kyaw Ko Ko before Jeje's 69th-minute equalizer ensured India have all but secured the top spot in the group.
India began in an evident 4-2-3-1, lining up with Jeje Lalpekhlua as the apex predator, while Udanta Singh, Sunil Chhetri and Halicharan Narzary took up positions behind him.
Midfield was reigned over by Eugeneson Lyngdoh and Germanpreet Singh, who incidentally made his first senior team start. The defence saw familiar guard marshal Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s goal, as Pritam Kotal, Anas Edathodika, Sandesh Jhingan and Jerry Lalrinzuala all began for the Blue Tigers.
For Myanmar, hot prospect Aung Thu began in attack while Kyaw Ko Ko, the jewel of the national team, also retained his starting spot in an Angels team, who needed nothing less than a win to ensure they tied with Kyrgyzstan in the group on points, seeing India had nothing to lose in the tie.
And India’s Asian neighbours began with an almighty bang. Aung Thu pushed the ball to Thein Than Win on the left, whose cross had Yan Naing leap above everybody else and nod in the opener. The time on the clock as India trailed showed a mere 13 seconds.
Seemingly agitated, India had their first punt at goal, when Edathodika rose to head an inswinging free-kick from Lalrinzuala. However, the deficit wouldn’t last for long. Chhetri, earning his 97th cap for the Blue Tigers, was razed down by a rogue tackle. He didn’t waste time in dispatching the ball, as the home side got back on level terms in the 13th minute.
Just before India's goal as well, the Tigers seemed close to their first kill of the night, when Jeje Lalpekhlua nearly connected with a great cross from the left, forcing keeper Kyaw Zin Htet to intervene. Despite his best attempts, a goalmouth melee broke loose, which only came to a standstill once David Htan was fouled.
Despite advances in the attack, the Indians seemed wary in their rear guard and ominous signals were given when Myanmar took back the lead in the 19th minute. A seemingly harmless Kyaw Ko Ko's drive was misjudged by Gurpreet, whose costly mistake saw the ball puncture the silence in the Indian net. With their tails up, Aung Thu went close to Myanmar just after the restart, but Jhingan managed to trawl back in time to defend and clear the danger.
Chhetri and Germanpreet tried to bring some life back into India’s attack, with the former laying the ball on a platter for latter to aim at goal. It, however, was deflected away by the closing defender for a corner. The resulting corner by Lyngdoh drew a superb header from Jhinghan who in turn saw a spectacular save from Htet, to keep the score-line in favour of the away side.
At the other end, Jhingan’s recklessness saw him concede a dangerous free-kick, which Kyaw Ko Ko lined up. Luckily for the hosts, Sandhu had the measure of the effort and punched it away. The Blues had a major chance to draw level five minutes before the half-time whistle after Eugeneson was fouled close to the box.
The ex-Bengaluru FC man saw his free-kick crumble into the box, where a surprised Jhingan was on guard to smash it over. Chhetri had the final chance of the half, with Lalpekhlua’s set-up for the 32-year-old, seeing him execute a shot that went just wide of the far post. However, Myanmar would have the last say in the battle of the half, when Thu nearly tripled the hosts lead only to see Gurpreet pull off a smart save, low to his left.
The second half began in earnest for either side. The first chance arrived for the hosts in the 58th minute, when Chhetri outleaped his marker to meet Udanta’s cross, but the effort soared wide.
That was followed by a flurry of chances wherein Jeje’s extra touch spoiled what could’ve been a clear shot at goal after Udanta had done brilliantly down the right. The subsequent attack two minutes later saw the Mizoram striker and his northeastern teammate Lyngdoh both miss a beautiful delivery into the box by Narzary, something that needed just a touch to convert it into the goal, India had been hunting for.
Nevertheless, Constantine’s men finally blew down the doors Gerd Zeise’s men had been diligently guarding. Lyngdoh and Jeje combined spectacularly, with the former’s incisive pass picked up on by the former Pune FC graduate, whose shot snuck into the bottom corner despite keeper Htat’s best attempts.
Unstuck by India’s equalizer, however, the Angels immediately raced down to India’s defensive third, where Niang Oo’s attempted cross was nabbed out of the air by Sandhu. The Naypyidaw-based team had another opportunity through Bo Bo’s shot but Singh comfortably gathered.
Anirudh Thapa replaced Eugenson, with ten minutes remaining on the close for his second senior outing, and had an immediate opportunity to shoot at goal, sending it wide. The match seemed to be churning to a close when drama struck at the depth.
Yan Aung Kyaw seemed to have ripped the script apart for the visitors when intercepted a pass between Tahapa and Jeje, which was handled in the box by his goalkeeper Htet. India with a golden opportunity to win the tie somehow muddled it up, by misinterpreting the laws of the indirect free-kick which must be followed after a back-pass in the box.
Chhetri stood over the ball and seemed to smash it in directly only for Lui Kwok Man to disallow the goal. His argument stood that the free-kick taken didn’t satisfy the indirect free-kick law which states, “'Unlike a direct free kick, a goal may not be scored directly from the kick; the ball must first come into contact with another player (from either team).''
Here, Lalpekhlua did touch the ball, however, it did not move before Chhetri shot at goal. India grudgingly accepted the verdict and the game moved into four minutes of added time. In the 93rd minute, Chhetri once again found himself in the right place at the right time only to see Htet save mesmerizingly yet again, in front of a 5594 strong home crowd.
As the referee blew his final whistle for the day, India trudged home with an unbeaten 13 game record under the British coach Constantine, while Zeise and his team drooped their shoulders.