What were India playing for? Coming into the match against Myanmar at Fatorda, this was a question that was cropping up again and again.
The Blue Tigers had qualified for the Asian Cup. Their position as the top team in the group was also more or less secure. And the match was happening just 3 days before the start of the ISL which, as Constantine observed in his book, can affect the national team's performance. Trying to get into the Pot 2 in Asian Cup, too, seemed to be an unfeasible task lately. Even the response from the Goan crowd was lukeworm; just about 5,546 people showed up to watch the game.
It was Myanmar who came in with the onus to fight. They needed to keep up with Kyrgyzstan before taking them on in a battle to earn their spot in the Asian Cup. And when the match began, it showed.
Constantine had given a start to Germanpreet Singh to replace the injured Rowlin Borges in the central midfield with no surprises anywhere else. And the way India started the game was perhaps also unsurprising. The defence that stood rock solid to earn to incredible clean sheets against Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan earlier this year, seemed to be once again suffering from the affliction that they exhibited against Macau; they turned on late.
In the very first minute, a pass from Thein Than Win found its way to Aung Thu, who immediately moved it ahead to Yan Naing Oo who had slipped past the defensive line. He chipped the ball right past Gurpreet who was exposed and helpless. India went 0-1 down right at the start.
Thankfully, the Blue Tigers didn't have to wait long to get back in the game. 12 minutes in, Sunil Chhetri was brought down inside the Myanmar box and he converted from the spot. One defensive error cancelled out another and the game was now 1-1.
Just about 5 minutes, later, though, the shakiness of the Indian defence showed again when Kyaw Ko Ko got the ball just outside the penalty box. He took the shot on the turn and it took Gurpreet Singh somewhat by surprise. The seasoned keeper failed to dive to his right on time. The ball went right past him. 1-2.
After going down, though, the home team solidified. The defence looked in better shape, there was increased communication between the back four. Myanmar were sneaking in enough times but Sandesh and Anas were putting in block after block while Gurpreet was more alert on his feet. The attacks also began pouring in; Sunil Chhetri and Jeje Lalpekhlua made a couple of misses from easy chances, but the momentum was unmistakably shifting to India.
In the second half, India pressed harder. As if in response to the Myanmar coach's boasts about controlling the game and keeping the ball in the first leg, India started playing a possession football that after the initial few minutes were clearly putting pressure on the Myanmar midfield. By the hour mark, the visitors had 10 bodies behind the ball. The screws were turning and the equalizer was surely coming.
It came in the 70th minute. Eugeneson Lyngdoh's through ball found Jeje right on the edge of the box and he shot it right past keeper Kyaw Zin Htet. 2-2, and it was game on.
The Blue Tigers were now hunting for the win. They created chances left right and centre, while Myanmar's shining moments were limited to some counters. As the game moved into the last 5 minutes, India got a golden opportunity to clinch the game when a back pass to the goalkeeper awarded India a free kick inside Myanmar's box. Sunil Chhetri stepped up to take the free kick, but it appeared he did not know that he could not score directly from it. He put the ball in the back of the net, and the opportunity that arised out of a defensive faux pa went amiss due to another mistake.
In the end it was a draw. This result sealed India's status as the top team in the group. And Myanmar were now in a postion where they would have to beat Macau and Kyrgyzstan in their last two games to win a place in the Asian Cup.
But what stood out more than anything else in this game was the concise, collective fight that India showed in the last two-thirds of the game to make up for their earlier mistakes and get back into the match.
What were they fighting for? Perhaps it was to keep their unbeaten streak alive, which has now been extended to 13 matches. Or perhaps because this is how they play. Maybe Constantine was right when he said before the match that his players would even give their best on a street if it meant they were playing for India. Perhaps having the domestic league around the corner didn't take away from India's performance after all.
For now, the coach has had his wish fulfilled. India have finished the year 2017 unbeaten. And that's a solid ground to build on when the squad reunites in March to begin preparations for their big test in UAE come 2019.