How do you approach a game of football you expect to lose? Indian football team coach Igor Stimac faces that task of preparing his team for a match knowing they have no real chance of avoiding defeat.
The objective would obviously be to limit the damage but even that is easier said than done against Asian champions Qatar.
India’s only encounter against their hosts in Qatar ended in a 6-0 thrashing 23 years at the same venue where they will play the 2022 Fifa World Cup qualifier.
The Indian team that came unstuck in that game in 1996 included the likes of Baichung Bhutia and IM Vijayan – probably India’s two best players – leading the attack. On Tuesday, the Indian team, that may be missing captain and record goalscorer Sunil Chhetri, may struggle to be considered of an equal footing to the one that lost heavily in Doha 23 years ago.
The Qatar team, on the other hand, is miles better than the one in 1996, perhaps the best the continent has ever seen. They won the AFC Asian Cup, conceding just one goal in the entire tournament. They then gave a good account of themselves at the Copa America, competing well against the likes of Argentina and Brazil, while also drawing against Paraguay.
So, India faces a colossal task at the Khalifa bin Hamad Stadium on Tuesday.
Stimac, usually an optimistic figure almost ruled out an Indian upset in the Qatar capital, speaking more on the idea of football he’s trying to build in India. The result of Tuesday’s match was not something that seemed to be his pressing concern.
“We know at the moment that Qatar at the moment is in a different league from all of us in the group and we need to concentrate on other teams like Afghanistan, Bangladesh and maybe Oman,” the Croatian said at the pre-match press conference in Doha on Monday.
“We are trying to be strong enough to get to the latter stages of the Asian Cup through these couple of years. And in the meantime, in these qualifiers, we will try to surprise Oman in their home ground if everything goes well against our games against Afghanistan and Bangladesh,” he added ruling out possibilities for stealing any points against Qatar.
However, Qatar who fired six past Afghanistan in their opening World Cup qualifier would be in no mood to relent in front of their home crowd. And in doing so, the Asian champions could do serious damage to the already fragile confidence of the Indian team.
This game, if one is being brutally realistic, is all about preserving India’s self-confidence. A good showing and a closer scoreline could almost feel like a win for The Blue Tigers, but on the other hand, a hammering could deal a blow to the morale of the team that has frequently been on the wrong side of the results of late.
Apart from keeping the goal difference in check that would keep their slim hopes of qualifying to the next round alive, India would like to walk away from the game feeling they can compete with the very best in the continent.
Felix Sanchez Bas has no fresh injury concerns but may opt to rotate his squad given the short turnaround time from the previous game. However, he is unlikely to tinker with his preferred 4-3-3 formation even if he decides to freshen up the team and bring in new personnel.
However, if recent games are anything to go by, Sanchez has picked from a small group of players and does seem to have his set of trusted players that he chooses from.
In goal, Saad Al Sheeb is likely to keep his place, so is the back four of Pedro Miguel Carvalho, Tarek Salman, Boualem Khoukhi, and Abdelkarim Hassan. Sanchez would like continuity in this area of the field.
In midfield, Karim Boudiaf and Assim Madibo are likely starters with Akram Afif, captain Hasan Al Haydos, Yusuf Abdurisag and Almoez Ali making up the attacking quartet of the team.
22-year-old Almoez has been the star for this Qatar side scoring 13 goals this calendar year. Fresh from a hat-trick against Afghanistan, Almoez will be a handful for Sandesh Jhingan and Adil Khan to deal with. Keeping him quiet would be a feather in the cap for the Indian defence with the forward contributing 48% of Qatar’s goals in 2019.
After the game against Oman, Stimac said that he is likely to make a few changes to the Indian side. In a game they gave it their all, India have their task cut out to recover physically for this daunting Qatar test.
However, changes are more likely to happen higher up the field for India. The Croatian is likely to hand the Indian back four he picked another go in Doha with Rahul Bheke who has been disappointing since making his debut most likely to drop out for Pritam Kotal.
In midfield, Stimac may be tempted to start both Vinit Rai and Rowlin Borges to provide more solidity at the centre of the park. However, Brandon Fernandes’ excellent display against Oman means he will remain in contention for a starting berth.
Upfront, Ashique Kuruniyan merits a start if he has recovered from the rigours of the Oman game. Sunil Chhetri would take up the centre-forward’s role while Udanta Singh is likely to keep his place. Lallianzuala Chhangte is an alternative in the wide areas.
Certain media reports have suggested Chhetri may be a doubt for the game. And with more important tests ahead, Stimac may not want to risk him in this game with Manveer Singh and Balwant Singh available as alternatives.
Head to head
India and Qatar have faced each other just once in the past. The meeting was in Doha at the same venue and also at the same stage in Fifa World Cup qualifiers. Mohamed Salem Al Enazi scored a brace powering the home side to a 6-0 victory.
After a solid start, India conceded six goals in twenty minutes either side of half-time to suffer one of their worse defeats.