Team India booked their ticket to the United Arab Emirates for the 17th edition of the AFC Asian Cup after winning their fourth consecutive match in the third round of the qualification campaign by defeating Macau 4-1 in Bengaluru on Wednesday.
India, who started the match knowing a win was enough to seal their berth in the continental competition for the first time since 2011, took the lead through midfielder Rowllin Borges in the 28th minute. Macau, to the surprise of the team and the crowd, pulled a goal back through Nicholas Tarrao before the end of the first half.
But it was captain Sunil Chhetri again who broke the deadlock at the stroke of the hour mark, before an own goal by Macau defender Man Fai-Ho in the 70th minute snuffed out any hopes of a comeback for Macau. Jeje Lalpekhlua added a fourth in extra time after an assist by Chhetri to make it a comfortable win for India.
Sunil Chhetri expressed his relief at early qualification, “It’s the biggest event in Asia and thank god we are there.”
The night started with India on the front foot but the teeming rain at the Kanteerava Stadium made it difficult for either side to play passing football. Once they found their footing, it was a combination of Jeje and Borges that helped Stephen Constantine’s men score the first goal of the night. After Jeje set Borges up at the edge of the box, his deflected shot left the Macau goalkeeper with no chance.
There was then a lapse of concentration by the Indian defence that put a spanner in the proceedings. A cross from the right was not dealt with by Sandeep Jhingan and Anas Edathodika and Tarrao sneaked in between the pair to head past Gurpreet Singh. This was the first goal scored by Macau and the first conceded by India in this round of qualifying.
Looking to force the issue at hand, Constantine made a half-time substitution by bringing Balwant Singh on for Jackichand Singh and that proved to be a game-changer. In the 60th minute, Jeje won the ball in the midfield and released Balwant quickly down the right, who then found his captain Chhetri at the far post with a well-measured cross. All the talismanic striker had to do was tap in from close range. He promptly celebrated by giving the credit to Balwant for his good work down the flank.
Matters were made simpler just 10 minutes later when a weak cross from the right by Holicharan Narzary was slashed into his own net by defender Fai Ho. While the result was sealed then, India continued to pour forward in the last quarter. Chhetri repeatedly tried to set up his strike partner Jeje for a goal, and after a series of offside calls against the Indian forwards, the captain succeeded. A little touch from the outside of his boot to an unmarked Jeje in the middle added sheen to the scoreline.
India have now qualified for the marquee Asian tournament with two games to spare. This is the fourth time they will be in the event where they finished runners-up in 1964.