Yangon: A last-minute strike by Sunil Chhetri helped India break a 64-year-old jinx as they pipped Myanmar by a solitary goal to begin their AFC Asian Cup qualifiers campaign on a promising note, on Tuesday.
India had not beaten Myanmar in their own den since October 1953, when they won 4-2 in a quadrangular tournament held in the then Rangoon (now Yangon). Myanmar beat India 1-0 the last time they met, during the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers in Yangon in March 2013.
Myanmar were the better side in the first of the two-legged home-and-away Group A matches as they controlled the midfield for most part of the game but India ran away with three full points with Chhetri scoring in the 90th minute from an Udanta Singh assist.
The youthful Myanmar side have been together for some time preparing for this competition and India head coach Stephen Constantine had even conceded before the match that the home team would start as favourites.
Myanmar did all the attacking, especially in the second session when the Indian defence was under siege for a long period of time.
But, the Myanmar forward line lacked the finishing abilities and they had very few clear chances at the Indian goal. The Indian defenders were able to thwart the waves of opposition attack before captain Chhetri produced a magical moment to score his 53rd international goal that stunned the large home crowd at Thuwunna Stadium.
India next play Kyrgyzstan at home on June 13. Macau are the fourth side in Group A and the two top teams will qualify for the final round of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates.
It was a fast-paced and open match and both sides showed intent to score at the first opportunity. India, ranked 40 places higher than their opponents at 132nd, as usual took some time to settle down but later on, it was an even contest in the first 45 minutes with both teams getting scoring chances.
Myanmar forwards Kyaw Ko Ko and Aung Thu created a lot of problems for the Indian defence with their pace with the home side mostly initiating their attacks from the right flank.
India started on a cautious note and opted to hold the ball more than the hosts. Myanmar, on the other hand had an attempt at the Indian goal within the first five minutes but Anas Edathodika kept Kyaw Ko Ko at bay.
Chhetri hit the gas immediately while he cut into from the left flank but a Myanmar defender cleared the danger.
India got back-to-back throws adjacent to the opposition penalty box but Myanmar defenders outnumbered their Indian counterparts to prevent them from drawing the first blood.
Just after the 15-minute mark, danger loomed large for India while Thein Than Win and Si Thu Aung combined well and built up a blistering attack from the left flank but the cross was cleared by Anas, who was making his International debut.
India started to build up the attack gradually from the midfield and the first chance came after the 20-minute mark.
Jackichand outran a Myanmar defender and unleashed a long cross from the right flank. Had Robin Singh jumped a second earlier, India could have broken the deadlock but eventually Myanmar goalie grabbed the ball with much composure.
Myanmar came very close to scoring again but Aung Thu missed to tap it on to an open net. Gurpreet, meanwhile, showed his composure time and again to grab the long crosses.
The best chance for the Indian team came at the stroke of the half-hour mark when Robin's through pass was skied by Jackichand Singh from a handshaking distance to leave the Indian dugout shell-shocked.
At the stroke of the half-time, Chhetri was tackled hard inside the penalty box but the referee didn't pay any heed to Indian players' penalty shout. Seconds before the breather, Kyaw Ko Ko almost found the back of the net but his grounder went astray.
Myanmar resumed where they left in the first half. They encashed on their fast-paced wingers to carry out waves of attacks on Indian goal but the visiting defenders showed their resilience to keep the scorecard a clean slate.
In the 70th minute, against the run of the play, Udanta outpaced his Myanmar marker and he was brought down inside the box. Albeit the Indians shout out loud for what looked like a legitimate penalty, the referee thought it otherwise.
India changed the gear with 10 minutes left on the clock but the Myanmar defenders kept them at bay. Three minutes to the end of the regulation time, Stephen introduced Halicharan Narzary to instil more agility in the attacking third.
The magical moment for India came in the last minute of the match when super-sub Udanta, on a brilliantly executed counter-attacking move, broke free from the right wing to unleash an inch-perfect pass to his talismanic skipper Chhetri who found the back of the net to silence the 20,000-strong crowd.
Speaking at the post match press conference, India head coach Stephen Constantine lauded his boys' never-say-die attitude on the pitch.
"Myanmar had several chances to score, but we showed great spirit on the field today. We never gave up mentally and that aided us in our win. We had three to four chances in the match, but we could only take the one in the end. It was a very tight game and boys showed fantastic spirit to earn the win," Constantine said.
"Football is all about taking your chances. We took ours and they did not take theirs. The credit goes to Myanmar for making it tough for us to play. Any coach makes substitution to try and change the game and our substitutions were brilliant on the field today."
Skipper Sunil Chhetri said, "It was a huge game for us. Myanmar at home are always difficult to play. We had lost last time here but we supported each other till the end and getting three points is an immense result for us".
Constantine said India's job has just started.
"This win (against Myanmar) does not matter much. We still have to take six points to be able to secure qualification to the final of the AFC Asian Cup 2019. India can defeat anybody on their day, but the job is still more than done. We have to stay focused and concentrate on the next game," Constantine said....