Kathmandu: India on Tuesday held a dominant Nepal to a goalless draw in their 2018 FIFA World Cup football qualifying round one second leg match to advance to the second round on 2-0 aggregate here.
India, who had beaten Nepal 2-0 in Guwahati on March 12 in first leg, were clearly the inferior side at the Dashrath Rangasala Stadium. They were put under severe pressure by the Nepalese, especially in the second half, but came out unscathed at the end.
Indian captain and goalkeeper Subrata Paul and the back four gave a brilliant display to thwart a spirited Nepalese attack on several occasions, with the upright coming to the rescue of the visiting team once.
Robin Singh put the ball into the Nepal net in the 57th minute but the referee disallowed the goal as it was clear that the Indian striker had used his hand.
On the day of the first leg in Guwahati, India had slumped to their worst ever FIFA rankings at 173rd but they are expected to gain places in next month’s chart after a win and a draw over Nepal — ranked 180th — over the two legs.
Englishman Stephen Constantine thus begins his second stint as India coach on a happy note but a tough road lies ahead for him and his boys as more fancied nations of the continent await in the next rounds.
India and other five round one winners will join the 34 highest-ranked teams of the continent in the second round. The 40 nations will be drawn into eight groups of five teams and compete according to a double round robin format.
The round two qualification matches will be held between June 11 and March 29 next year. The group winners and four best runners-up (total 12 teams) of round two will advance to the final round of qualifying for 2018 World Cup (as well as 2019 Asian Cup finals as it’s a joint qualification process for 2018 World Cup and 2019 Asian Cup.
Enjoying a two-goal cushion, India appeared to play safe, slow down proceedings, and at the end it paid off.
Nepal though dominated the match but could not break free and that added to their frustration. They did earn a series of free kicks in the first half and even hit the post in the 68th minute but the back four and the last line of defence was there to absorb almost everything.
India had a couple of chances. The introduction of Cavin Lobo in place of Lenny Rodrigues in the 46th minute helped India regain composure. In the 60th minute, Lalrindika Ralte’s corner was headed out for a corner and off the resultant corner, Nepal recovered fast to counter attack.
In the 68th minute, striker Sunil Chettri dribbled past three in the rival box but his placement missed by a whisker with rival goalkeeper Limbu Kiran beaten.
Coach Constantine was a satisfied with the result.
“It is nice to leave with a happy result. Result always matters and we achieved what we intended.”
“We came here to win but they put us under pressure. They gave everything they had and that speaks of the character of the Nepali people,” he said at the official post-match media interaction.
However, Constantine did make a mention of the pitch which wasn’t “up to the mark”.
“This is not an excuse but the pitch outside is not suitable for football. You can’t play good football on such a pitch and we were not able to play it either. The pitch on which we played in Guwahati was of very high quality,” he further stated.
“We have to accept that didn’t play our best game and we need to do better. We’re trying to build a good team for the future and I promise that we will.”
Meanwhile, midfielder Dhanpal Ganesh became the eighth player to debut for senior Indian team in the two matches played under Constantine.