It was hard to decipher India’s strategy against defending Asian champions Qatar at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar on Tuesday. It was understandable that they wanted to defend against a team ranked 61st in the world, 41 places higher than them.
But in a vital FIFA World Cup 2026 qualifier, India coach Igor Stimac decided to bench goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, undoubtedly the best player the last two times India faced the 2022 World Cup hosts. Not just that, the Croatian made four changes among the outfield players from the team that stunned Kuwait 1-0 in the opening game of the campaign.
The result of those changes was that India lacked coordination, especially when defending. And they were made to pay the price by their much taller, stronger, and in-sync opponents. The final scoreline read 0-3 but Stimac would know that the score could’ve been much more humiliating had Qatar converted even half of the chances they created.
This was more than just a World Cup qualifier for India. It was also their toughest preparatory game ahead of the AFC Asian Cup in January, where similar or tougher tests await them. It was a chance for Stimac to show that India has attacking flair and a solid defence. But with Amrinder Singh replacing Gurpreet, the defence led by Sandesh Jhingan looked shaky from the start. Amrinder looked overawed by the occasion and responsibility. He had a nightmarish game with the ball at his feet, giving it away three times in the first half itself.
Qatar were coming from a 8-1 thrashing over Afghanistan. Coached by Carlos Queiroz, who has managed the likes of Iran, Portugal and Real Madrid, they almost took the lead in the second minute when a misplaced pass from Amrinder allowed their star striker Almoez Ali to walk into the Indian box and square it to Akram Afif.
Just about four yards in front of goal, Afif fluffed his chance to send it wide much to the relief of the packed Kalinga Stadium, which had former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger in attendance.
It didn’t take long for Qatar to redeem themselves, courtesy of some chaotic defending by India. Just two minutes later, India managed to head Afif’s corner out of the box, only for a Qatari player to send it back in. The ball pinballed in the Indian box and Udanta Singh’s failed clearance was met by the quick Mostafa Meshaal, who sent into the bottom corner.
An early goal seemed to ease the pressure of the away match and Qatar kept displaying their attacking flair and prowess, launching attack after attack, with the Indian defence just about managing to hold out.
Changes don’t work
In the defensive set-up, Stimac brought in Anirudh Thapa for Sahal Abdul Samad, and at left-back, he replaced Ashish Mishra with Subhasish Bose. Benching the in-form Mahesh Singh and starting with Udanta Singh was also a risk that didn’t pay off as India didn’t look threatening on counters.
It was only after the half-hour mark that India started showing glimpses of what they are capable of. Probably their best move of the match came in the 35th minute when Thapa and Udanta played a series of one-twos to enter the Qatar box before Thapa pulled it back for Apuia Ralte waiting at the top of the area. The Mumbai City FC playmaker, who was easily India’s best player in the match, skied his shot into the stands.
However, that attack gave India belief that they too could penetrate the Qatar defence, which leaked four goals against Iran in their last friendly.
Thank you, Bhubaneswar for all your support tonight 💙
— Indian Football Team (@IndianFootball) November 21, 2023
Thapa had India’s best opportunity of the match in the 42nd minute when Sunil Chhetri’s persistence helped him rob a Qatari defender and play the ball to Thapa.
With just the goalkeeper to beat, Thapa tried to be cheeky and poke the ball from the edge of the box, but it was well wide of the target.
Qatar doubled their lead in the first minute of the second half, as Almoez got on the scoresheet. Boualem Khouki sold Lallianzuala Chhangte a dummy and floated a lovely ball out to Afif waiting in the box. Afif smashed it at goal and Amrinder could only palm it under his body but Almoez, Qatar’s record goalscorer who scored four against Afghanistan, slid in to take his tally to 80 for his country.
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Stimac made two changes early in the second half, bringing in Mahesh in place of Udanta at the start and getting Sahal in place of Thapa a little later. It was then that India started combining well and looked threatening. Sahal had a good chance in the 65th minute, finding himself in acres of space inside the box after a brilliant through ball by Suresh Singh, but he dragged his left-footed shot wide, probably not realising how much time he actually had.
Qatar put the game to bed in the 85th minute with substitute Yusuf Abdurisag scoring with the simplest of headers at the near post, and just like that, India’s
15-game unbeaten run at home was broken.
While they were certainly outplayed, they did show that it was possible to create chances against Asia’s best. They, however, need to find a striker capable of making a nuisance of himself against tough defences, for as it stands, Stimac’s men are yet to register a shot on target in more than 270 minutes (three matches) against Qatar.