As Stephen Constantine and his boys gear up for a crucial 2019 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup qualifier against Myanmar, the well-wishers of The Blue Tigers will definitely be a mix of excitement and nervousness.
Excited because India are embarking on a journey that seems to be a straightforward path to the continent's showpiece tournament in which India have taken part only thrice since its inception in 1956. There is a heightened focus on the game in India and qualification for the Asian Cup is the first step towards playing in the FIFA World Cup one day. Having been drawn in a group consisting of Kyrgyzstan (ranked 125th), Myanmar (ranked 172nd) and Macau (ranked 184th), the Blue Tigers, themselves ranked 132nd, are expected to finish in the top-two and clinch qualification.
But a prickly opponent in the form of Myanmar stands in their way straight up. The South-east Asian nation will have followers of the national team slightly concerned because results against this team greatly influenced India's bid to qualify for the 2011 and 2015 AFC Asian Cups.
After a gap of 27 years, India qualified for the 2011 tournament by winning the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup, which was held in India. The tournament, played by Asian countries categorised as 'emerging nations', guaranteed the winners a spot in the Asian Cup and that is exactly what India went on to achieve. In the semifinals of the tournament, India faced Myanmar at the Gachibowli stadium in Hyderabad. In tough outfield conditions due to a waterlogged pitch, India prevailed 1-0 thanks to a late winner from Sunil Chhetri who profited from some good work by Bhaichung Bhutia.
Riding high on that success, India went on to win the final by demolishing Tajikistan 4-1 and clinched qualification for the 2011 edition of the Asian Cup which was held in Qatar.
The next time India came up against The White Angels was in the qualification stage for the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup. India only had to top a group which consisted of Myanmar, Guam and Chinese Taipei. Having won their opening two games, India looked primed to secure qualification for the main event and thereby stand a chance to qualify for the 2015 edition of the Asian Cup. However, at the Thuwunna stadium in Yangon, the home team rode a 75th-minute winner from Soe Min Oo to end India's bid. Even a draw in the game would have secured India a path to the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup as the best-placed runners-up but it was not to be.
The AFC Challenge Cup was subsequently stopped by AFC which would then take into account the performance in the World Cup qualifiers. The Blue Tigers' last placed finish in the second round group stage meant that they had to negotiate a playoff against Laos to participate in the third round of qualification for the 2019 Asian Cup.
But just like in their bids to reach the previous two editions, Myanmar once again stand in their way and a good start at the Thuwunna stadium on Tuesday is imperative for Stephen Constantine. For, a loss would make a fairly easy group look more daunting and complicated. Coming after an unconvincing friendly win against Cambodia that served up more questions rather than answers regarding the ideal composition of India's starting XI for Tuesday, there is a level of apprehension around the game. But an away win against Myanmar, who have made massive improvements at youth level, will set India up well for the rest of the campaign.
If we do cycle back a few decades, India suffered a heavy 9-1 loss in 1971 to Myanmar (then Burma) which highlighted the decline of the team, which once was counted among the elite in the continent, especially in the '50s and early '60s. As the nation endeavours to rise from its slumber, a convincing win against their neighbours might just set the tone for The Blue Tigers, as recent history stands testimony.