Jeje found the target in the 56th minute from a Udanta Singh assist as a dominant India carved out a win away © Getty Images (Representational Image)
Jeje found the target in the 56th minute from a Udanta Singh assist as a dominant India carved out a win away © Getty Images (Representational Image)

Vientiane (Laos): Striker Jeje Lalpekhlua scored the winner as India beat Laos by a solitary goal in a play-off match to put themselves in a strong position of qualifying for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers on Thursday. Jeje found the target in the 56th minute from a Udanta Singh assist as a dominant India carved out a win away from home in a long time at the New Laos National Stadium. India had recorded their last away win in 2013 during the 10th SAFF Championships in Nepal. The Stephen Constantine-coached side will now go into into the June 7 home tie in Guwahati in an advantageous position.

India had won just one match in eight outings in the joint 2019 Asian Cup and 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers and that has left them to feature in these play-off matches to earn the right to play in the qualifying round of the continent’s flagship football tournament. It will also be a relief for Englishman Constantine whose future has been under the scanner after a series of poor shows by the national team under his charge.

India, ranked 163rd in the FIFA charts, dominated throughout today’s match as they did most of the attacking against the 174th ranked home side who had to defend their citadel for most part and rely on occasional counter attacks. But with central defender Sandhesh Jhingan marshaling the Indian back four admirably well, Laos’ chances were few and far between.

On the other hand, Indian frontmen Sunil Chhteri, Jeje, Udanta Singh and Holicharan Nazary got space to mount several attacks on the Laos goal, while midfield livewire Eugenson Lyngdoh were able to feed them constantly. The initial phase of the match saw captain Chhetri and Jeje trying to breach the rival defence with some neat work with Udanta and Holicharan breaking into the Laos box from the right and left flanks.

India earned a couple of free-kicks early on and from one such set piece, defender Rino Anto took a shot at the Laos goal but it got deflected from a defender’s leg in the 28th minute. The visiting side got the first real chance and the best one of the opening half in the 42nd minute when Lyngdoh was released into the Laos box by Chhetri but the India midfielder shot over the bar from close.

The Indians piled on the pressure on Laos and just before the break Lyngdoh had another volley and this time also he missed the target. Constantine brought in Seityasen Singh in place of Holicharan after the break as India continued to pile pressure on the home team after resumption. The Laos citadel fell finally in the 56th minute with Jeje nodding the ball into the Laos net from a fine Udanta cross from the right.

Jolted by the goal, the home side went all out for an equaliser as the Indian defence came under pressure in the last 20 minutes. Jeje was replaced by Sumit Passi in the 70th minute and then Alwyn George came in place of Mohd. Rafique, who apparently sustained an injury just a few minutes before the final whistle. India were lucky to have come out unscathed as Laos wasted a golden chance to equalise in the third minute of the injury time. Laos player Khampheng got a free header from a cross from the right in front of the Indian goal but he missed the target.

Coach Constantine was, however, “not too pleased with the performance” of his players. “Laos made it difficult for us running all around. But we can play much better than this. We have just won the first half and go into our home match with a slight advantage. Hopefully, we can win at home,” he said at the post-match press conference. Today’s win was the first for India in an away Qualifier since 2001 and when reminded about it, Constantine did not seem willing to read much into it.

“I never care about records,” he quipped. All India Football Federation President Praful Patel congratulated the players for the win today. “A brilliant victory for the boys against Laos. Congratulations on the performance,” he wrote on his Twitter handle. Patel had earlier made a goof up as his tweet before the start of the match mentioned it as a World Cup Qualifiers game.

“India gears up to face Laos in the World Cup Qualifiers today. Expecting a spirited performance from the boys,” he tweeted. The tweet was later removed from his handle. The joint 2018 FIFA World Cup and 2019 Asian Cup Qualifiers Preliminary Rounds ended on March 29 with India losing to Turkmenistan 1-2 in Kochi to finish at the bottom of five-team Group D with just three points. The bottom-placed finish ended India’s campaign in the 2018 World Cup Qualifiers and led them to play in the play-off matches to earn the right to book a berth for the qualifying tournament of the 2019 Asian Cup.