Coming into the third match-day of the qualifiers on the back of their recent Tri-Nations Cup win back at home, the Men in Blue knew what stood in store for them when the hosts lined up in a 5-4-1 system.
After being afforded all the time in the world on the ball in a manner which defined the ambitions of the tiny autonomous region, Stephen Constantine’s men were largely ineffective in a toothless first-half display which reflected in the scoreboard.
With the Macanese putting eleven men behind the ball, the visitors struggled to create clear-cut scoring chances as they were restricted to long-range shots from outside the box for most of the half. Despite their win in the Tri-Nations Cup, goals had been hard to come by for India as they managed three goals in two games.
Two 1-0 victories in their opening couple of games had given the Sunil Chhetri-led side a perfect record coming into this game. The skipper had been at the forefront of those victories, scoring both goals but his uncharacteristic sluggishness exposed the lack of killer instinct among the rest of the forward-line as the hosts' defence lay unbreachable at the half-time whistle.
Chhetri had joined up with the squad less than a week ago due to Bengaluru FC’s AFC Cup Inter-Zonal semi-final commitments and the lack of match-rhythm showed in fellow club-mate Udanta Singh’s slow start.
India’s target-man up top, Jeje Lalpekhlua, failed to impose himself physically as he was bundled-over in possession a few times too many for his liking. With the lack of space on offer through the centre, the Men in Blue’s midfield duet of Rowllin Borges and Eugeneson Lyngdoh were forced to move the play through the wings which is where most of India’s attacking verve in the match originated.
Left-winger Halicharan Narzary failed to create much of an impact in the game beyond a delicious cross across the Macau back-line that skipper Chhetri failed to convert. In fact, most of India’s threat from the left-flank came through Narayan Das who was given the license to bomb forward for the majority of the match.
Credit though must be given to Constantine for making an inspired substation at the interval when he brought on Mumbai FC striker Balwant Singh at the expense of central midfielder Lyngdoh.
The Hoshiarpur-born man created instant havoc in the heart of the Macanese defence as his physical threat was in stark contrast to Jeje’s meek performance in the first period. The biggest positive from India’s Tri-Nations victory was not the trophy but the emergence of Balwant as a valuable weapon for Constantine.
With three goals in his last three appearances, the 30-year-old striker has already made his case for a berth in the starting eleven for the remaining qualifiers.
His arrival in the second-half provided the wide men with a focal-point to target their crosses and on another day the striker could well have had a far greater return than his two sublime finishes which proved to be the cornerstones of India’s victory.
The target man’s presence in the box gave right-back Pritam Kotal the initiative to raise his attacking input as the right-flank of India came alive after a tepid first-half display.
With Macau camped in their own third, Borges did well to recycle possession in almost a one-man midfield as he sprayed passes to either wing with ease.
India’s defence remained largely untroubled and Sandeep Jhinghan and Anas Edathodika, along with custodian Gurpreet Singh, cleaned up well in the rare occasions they were called upon into action.
All in all, an away victory is never easy to come by at any level and Constantine’s men deserve a lot of credit for getting the job done and putting themselves in a great position to qualify for the AFC Asian Cup for the first time since 2011.
With a return-leg against Macau at home for India next, they could very much book their tickets to the UAE provided the other results in the group go their way come 10th of October. The side would do well to sharpen their attacking instincts in that particular game before the tougher tests of Myanmar and the Kyrgyz Republic return.