The last time India snatched a point from Qatar, the Gulf nation created as many as 27 chances, Indian defenders were forced to make 36 tackles and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu made an incredible 11 saves as India held the Asian champions to a goalless draw.
That was four years ago, in the second round of the joint World Cup and Asian Cup qualifiers. A lot has happened since that match in Doha. The 10-man India lost their ‘home’ encounter in which Doha was a central venue due to Covid restrictions, and the no small matter of Qatar hosting and playing in the World Cup.
With the two teams meeting again in the same stage of the qualifiers, this time in Bhubaneswar on Tuesday, a lot has changed.
India have also grown stronger under coach Igor Stimac, and their 1-0 win away to Kuwait last week was testament to that. But this is nothing compared to the growth that Qatar has witnessed, especially since successfully hosting the FIFA World Cup.
So, when India host Qatar on Tuesday in their second match in the second round of the joint qualifiers for the 2026 World Cup and 2027 AFC Asian Cup, it may look like an lopsided battle, but the hosts will go into the match with belief in their ability. Continue to punch above their weight.
Before pinning their hopes on a surprise win, India must figure out how to score against Qatar. In both of their previous games, the Blue Tigers were unable to get a shot on goal. Indeed, they defended resolutely and the stats speak for themselves, but Tuesday’s match is much more than just a qualifier – it is more about how India stack up against the Asian heavyweights, considering the all-important Asia Cup in January of the year. Next.
India have already shown a glimpse of their ability to compete head-to-head with the better Asian sides, and their 2-2 draw with Iraq in September is proof of that. The fact that they will win three titles in 2023 – the Tri-Nations Series, the Intercontinental Cup and the SAFF Championship – simply shows the steady improvement India has made. Young people especially. The U-23 men’s national team’s arrival in the round of 16 at the Asian Games after 13 years in difficult circumstances was not a one-off.
Undefeated at home
They will also take heart from the fact that they have not lost a single home game this year.
“When you play high-level matches in a row without losing, and you face Kyrgyzstan and Kuwait three times, Lebanon twice and Iraq and you don’t lose matches and you keep a clean sheet, it is quite clear that you are consistent,” Stimac said before the Qatar finals. match.
But nothing could give them more confidence than their 1-0 win over Kuwait in the first match of these qualifiers last week, thanks to a brilliant goal from striker Manvir Singh. While India beat Kuwait on home turf, beating them on home turf would have been unimaginable even five years ago. It may have been their first World Cup qualifying win on foreign soil for the first time in 22 years, but Stimac wants them to forget this victory.
The Croatian believes, and one might agree with him, that a positive result against Qatar is the only way forward. He added: “I told our players immediately after the Kuwait match in the locker room that the best thing is to forget this match immediately. Save your energy from partying and overconfidence and enter a state of euphoria. I don’t forget it. Let’s get ready for the Qatar match. “This is the only way forward,” Stimac said.
Qatar flexed its muscles in an 8-1 thrashing of Afghanistan to start the Asian qualifiers in style. Four of those goals came from the boots of all-time top scorer Almoez Ali, who was the best player in the 2019 Asian Cup, and the Sandesh Jhingan-led Indian defense is sure to have a busy time keeping him silent.
India would like to take a look at the fixtures ahead of the Afghanistan match. Qatar lost 4-0 to Iran and tied 1-1 against Russia in its two friendly matches since September. But led by coach Carlos Queiroz, who has managed teams such as Iran and Portugal and a club such as Real Madrid, the team will want to continue the momentum they gained from the Afghanistan match. They will also view these matches as preparation for the Asian Cup on home soil, and given how bad their World Cup campaign was (they couldn’t get a single point), they will look to January’s tournament as a form of redemption.
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Stimac put in a brave act in the match against Kuwait, benching the speedy Lallianzuala Chhangte, who ironically came on and set up the goal for Manvir, the player he started in his place. With Manvir scoring, it will be difficult for Stimac to put him on the bench against Qatar.
While he opted for an attacking line-up against Kuwait, he could shift towards a more defensive approach on Tuesday, which could mean that magical playmaker Sahil Abdul Samad may have to make way for Anirudh Thapa. That would be unfortunate given that Sahal has been brilliant in the Indian jersey and the majority of their attacks have come through him. But Stimac said on the eve of the match that he would do his best.
“It’s a game, there’s nothing to lose for us, but there’s a lot to win. So let’s get out of it all,” he said. “We can’t control external factors. We can only control our performance individually and as a team. The only thing we have to do is give our best for 90 minutes when the starting whistle blows.”