Bhutia and Vijayan praise process as India inch closer to Asian Cup qualification

With a 2-0 win in Macau on Tuesday, the Indian football team took a significant step to qualifying for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.
India lead Group A in Asian Cup qualifiers with three wins from as many games
India lead Group A in Asian Cup qualifiers with three wins from as many games

CHENNAI: With a 2-0 win in Macau on Tuesday, the Indian football team took a significant step to qualifying for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. Though they started as favourites, the home team kept Sunil Chhetri & Co at bay in the first half. A lot has been spoken about the team’s over-reliance on Chhetri. Even in the first two qualifiers against Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan, the 33-year-old’s goals proved vital for the team.

On Tuesday, Balwant Singh’s goals in the second half showed that others are capable of stepping up when it matters. With Chhetri and Jeje Lalpekhlua marked efficiently, Balwant made most of the opportunity. Even against Mauritius and St Kitts and Nevis in August, India did reasonably despite missing key players. While the results were not entirely satisfactory, it provided a glimpse of what the future could hold without Chhetri.

“This is very important. While Chhetri is crucial for our team, today’s match showed that football is not about one person. His individual skill is exceptional. But in the end, football is a team game and collective work is necessary,” former India captain and iconic striker Bhaichung Bhutia told Express.

India now top Group A with three wins from as many games. With their next match in Bengaluru on October 10 against Macau, the path to Asia Cup looks realistic. Tuesday’s result showed India is slowly raising their game while playing away.

“There is great commitment from the players. Earlier, they were not that confident while playing abroad. But the boys have worked hard and prepared themselves for conditions abroad and this is slowly reflecting on the field. This is a great moment for football in our country,” added Bhutia.

Though goals decide matches, the defensive aspect is equally important. India are yet to concede a goal in the qualifiers.

Coach Stephen Constantine has brought versatility that had been lacking so far. Anas Edathodika and Sandesh Jhingan have been solid at the back. Recently, Constantine heaped praise on Jhingan, stating that he is capable of playing in some of Europe’s top-tier teams. Even passing in the final third and holding the ball in midfield is improving slowly.

“Thankfully, the conditions favoured India today. The substitutions in the second half were purely tactical and it worked wonders. All credit to Constantine for that. We dominated the game in the second half and if we are able to carry this momentum, the boys will make our country proud,” said IM Vijayan, who is in Macau as an observer for AIFF.

vimalsankar@newindianexpress.com

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