Following an impressive victory over formidable Turkmenistan in their last match, India start as favourites against Myanmar in Thursday's AFC Challenge Cup football tournament semi-final in Hyderabad.
After two lacklustre matches -- against Afghanistan and Tajikistan -- India beat Turkmenistan 2-1 and sent them packing from the tournament. That victory saw them top Group A and put their title hopes on course.
The home team started on an unimpressive note but had to wait till injury time to beat minnows Afghanistan by a solitary goal in their opening match and come from behind to hold defending champions Tajikistan 1-1 in the next outing.
But what has made coach Bob Houghton happy is the never-say-die attitude of his charges, who fought till the end. The Englishman feels that trait will be crucial to win the tournament and qualify for the 2011 Asian Cup.
"All the boys showed fighting spirit till the end in all the group matches, especially in the first two -- against Afghanistan and Tajikistan. They are an honest bunch of boys who try very hard. They know the importance of this tournament," Houghton said of his charges.
India's best match of the tournament was against Turkmenistan; all the players chipped in though it was captain Baichung Bhutia's brace that sealed victory.
The back four were spot on, the midfield up to the task and strikers Baichung and Sunil Chhetri created havoc whenever India raided the rival defence. Goalkeeper Subrata Paul was outstanding under the bar.
Houghton later described that match as one of India's best in the last 12 months.
The team, however, will take Myanmar lightly at its own peril at the Gachibowli Stadium on Friday, considering that the South East Asians had beaten Sri Lanka and Nepal by impressive margins of 3-1 and 3-0 respectively before losing to title favourites DPR Korea 0-1 in their last Group B match.
India have played Sri Lanka and Nepal in regional tournaments, like the SAFF Cup, and know that beating Sri Lanka and Nepal by those margins was no mean job. Thus, they can't affort lower their guard on the morrow.
Myanmar, ranked nearly 30 places below India in the FIFA charts, are technically sound and play a short and fast-paced game under the influence of their Brazillian coach, Marcos Antonio Falopa.
Falopa had taken Myanmar to two final appearances last year -- in the Merdeka Cup and South East Asia Games.
They have two nippy forwards in captain Soe Myat Min and Paing Yan, who have scored three goals between them, and midfielders Win Thein Waza and Myo Min Tun to bank on for the crucial supplies upfront.
Falopa had said though India will be a tough opponent at home his charges are capable of springing a surprise.
"We are a technically sound team and we play fast-paced and crisp passing football and we gave the Koreans a run for their money. So it would be a tough match for India," Falopa had said after their DPR Korea match.
With India reaching the semi-finals, AFC and AIFF officials are hoping a bigger crowd throngs the Gachibowli Stadium for the semi-finals on Thursday and final.
Spectator attendance at the Gachibowli Stadium has been poor, a 2500-odd turn-out in the match between India and Turkmenistan the best so far.
Most of the matches were earlier scheduled to be held at the Lal Bahadur Stadium, which is in the heart of the city, but due to poor ground conditions there the main venue was shifted to Gachibowli Stadium, more than 20km from the city.
With the rain gods relenting in the past 48 hours, ground conditions at Gachibowli will be better compared to the heavy surface the India - Turkmenistan match was played on, on Sunday.
India (From): Baichung Bhutia (captain), Subrata Paul, Surkumar Singh, Mahesh Gawli, Gouramangi Singh, Renedy Singh, Sunil Chhetri, Anwar Ali, Steven Dias, Climax Lawrence, N P Pradeep, Clifford Miranda, Syed Rahim Nabi, Sameer Naik, Baldeep Singh (Jr), Bungo Singh, Ajayan Krishanan Nair, Mehrajuddin Wadoo, Abhishek Yadav, Deepak Mondal, Sushil Kumar Singh, Subhashish Roy Chowdhary, Govin Moirangthem.
Myanmar (From): Soe Myat Min (captain), Aung Aung Oo, U Min Thu, Moe Win, Khin Maung Lwin, Zaw Htet Aung, Yan Paing, Soe Myat Min, Myo Min Tun, Tun Tun Win, Yaza Win Thein, Aung Htay, Thura Aung, Aung Myo Thant, Soe Thiha Aung, Han Win Aung, Aye San, Si Thu Win, Kyaw Zayar Win, Kyaw Zin Htet, Tun Min Oo, Pai Soe, Kyaw Moe, Nyi Nyi Lwin.