Still licking their wounds after succumbing to gut-wrenching, demoralising 1-2 defeat to Oman at home in their 2022 World Cup qualifiers campaign opener, India look to pick up the pieces as they face Qatar in their second fixture at the Jassim bin Hamad Stadium in Doha on Wednesday.
The Oman result was too harsh on the Blue Tigers, given how they had taken the attack to Erwin Koeman’s side and seemed deserved winners until Al Mandhar Rabia shattered Indian hearts with a late brace.
And a defeat against Asian champions Qatar (playing their second game at home), would dampen India’s chances of finishing in the top two in their group and qualifying for the next round of World Cup qualifiers.
Beating Felix Sanchez’s team, ranked 62 in the Fifa rankings, seems like an insurmountable task but India have all the necessary ingredients to hurt any top-quality side if they stick to their guns.
Qatar, who have already sealed their place at the 2022 World Cup by virtue of being hosts, dismantled Afghanistan 6-0 in their opening match. India coach Igor Stimac already suggested the hosts have nothing to fear against Qatar but the result for his side today will all depend on their approach.
Afghanistan played a defensive 5-4-1 formation and Qatar ripped them to shreds, so a sit back-and-counter approach may not be a feasible option for India.
While India has been playing the preferred 4-2-3-1 formation under Stimac, Sanchez is a manager who adopts a versatile system depending on the need of the situation.
A student of the renowned La Masia academy, the 43-year-old is a pragmatic coach who focuses on keeping possession and exploiting the empty pockets of spaces on the field with fluid and intricate passing exchanges.
With the odds stacked against the visitors, here are the key battles that could decide the result of the game:
Hasan Al-Haydos vs Rowllin Borges
Pulling strings in midfield, captain Al-Haydos is the heartbeat of Qatar’s attack. The Al-Sadd player is also in charge of set-piece duties alongside midfielder Boulaem Khoukhi.
And he is up against a man who will once again be tasked with the major responsibility of screening India’s shaky and unsettled defence – Rowllin Borges. With Pranoy Halder and Amarjit Kiyam both out injured, the experienced Borges remains Stimac’s best bet for the defensive midfield role as of now. There will be a huge onus on the Goan midfielder to sniff out Qatar’s attacks and dismantle their playing rhythm. For that, he’ll need to keep Al-Haydos quiet in the middle of the park.
Akram Afif vs Pritam Kotal
Stimac has hinted making wholesome changes to the playing eleven for the upcoming game and veteran Pritam Kotal could be slotted in for the error-prone Rahul Bheke at right-back after the latter’s dismal outing against Oman.
Kotal will be tasked with marking the twinkle-toed Afif on the left channel, another Qatar attacker likely to cause multiple problems for the nervy Indian defence. A winger by trade, Afif fools his markers by cutting inside or stretching wide thereby sucking defenders out of their position to create spaces for his teammates. At the 2019 Asian Cup, he registered the most assists (10) and more of the same could be expected from him in Doha on Wednesday.
Abdel Karim Hassan vs Udanta Singh
An attacking-minded full-back with an eye for goal, Hassan offers additional width for Qatar with his overlapping runs and supply of crosses from the left flank. When the need arises to build the attack, he also pushes up as an inverted full-back to support the midfielders.
He served a reminder of his attacking instincts last week when he found the net against Afghanistan along with maintaining a clean sheet. However, this is where winger Udanta Singh could bomb forward and exploit the spaces behind Hassan to create openings for India.
Hassan is unlikely to compromise on his attacking threat, leaving a major burden on young centre-back Tarek Salman to cover up for him in defence.
Assim Mabido vs Sahal Abdul Samad
Samad could be one of the new faces from the Indian camp taking the field on Wednesday. Till now, the Kerala youngster has featured in all games under Stimac so far and in a short span of time, presented a strong case to be India’s number 10 for years to come.
Given his audacious dribbling, excellent link-up play and the ability to spray passes through the eye of a needle – Sahal could be key in unlocking a Qatar defence that conceded just one goal during their Asian Cup triumph. Holding midfielder Mabido will be tasked with the job of cutting off Samad’s supply of passes to the forward line.
Almoez Ali vs Sandesh Jhingan
One of the hottest strikers in Asian football, Ali’s stock has risen exponentially since the start of the year. The 23-year-old finished as the top-scorer in the Asian Cup along with being crowned the player of the tournament.
With his raw pace, poaching instincts and dominant aerial prowess – Ali is not only an out-and-out striker but also clever in manipulating defences and running them ragged by interchanging positions.
While the defence has proved to be the weakest component for Stimac’s side, India will once again bank on the colossus presence of Jhingan, one of the senior-most members in the squad.
Jhingan’s defensive nous will be put to test against a player whose banging goals with ease for both club and country. And if the Kerala Blasters defender manages to shackle Ali, the rest of the result may take care of itself for India.