At the end of 90 minutes at the Jassim bin Hamad Stadium in Doha on Tuesday evening, even the Indian team members could not believe their eyes. The magnitude of the 0-0 result against Asian champions Qatar was such that the emotion got to them. On paper, the result was a draw but it felt like a victory.
Goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu sank to the ground in tears after a stupendous night while coach Igor Stimac raised both his hands in celebration after the full-time whistle. The Croatian later ran onto the pitch, jumping with joy and hugging his jubilant players.
Looking at the statistics, you would wonder how Qatar did not manage to score? They had nearly one-third of ball possession in the game and registered 27 shots on goal compared to India’s meek tally of two. Throughout the match, Felix Sanchez’s men threw the kitchen-sink at India and tested the visitor’s resolve only to end up settling for a point on a night of dogged determination from the Blue Tigers.
While goalkeeper Sandhu will understandably grab the headlines after pulling off 11 significant saves, the result was down to the shift the whole team put together as a unit.
Before the start of the match, many Indian fans would have been happy if the team would find a way to lose by a narrow margin against Qatar. And when the team sheets came out, the task seemed improbable. Captain Sunil Chhetri, one of the mainstays of this team, did not even make the bench while Ashique Kuruniyan, whose pace and trickery caused problems for Oman in the opening clash, also sat out. Manvir Singh led the line with Nikhil Poojary drifting to the left flank. Brandon Fernandes and Subhasish Bose made way for Sahal Abdul Samad and Mandar Rao Dessai.
Meanwhile, for Qatar, Akram Afif and Karim Boudiaf were forced out with injuries and they were replaced by Bassam Hisham and Abdul Aziz Hatem. Their absences hardly made a difference as the hosts began firing on all cylinders from the word go, mainly through captain Hasan Al Haydos on the left.
India, however, held the fort with a defensive 5-4-1 formation as wingers Udanta Singh and Poojary both dropped deep to ensure India stayed compact and resilient at the back.
While Samad played in an advanced role, Anirudh Thapa and Rowllin Borges were in charge of manning the midfield. Putting in a solid shift, the duo largely cut the supply of passes towards the forward line forcing the Maroons to attack from the wide spaces. Qatar’s full-backs Abdel Karim Hassan (3) and Roro (2) tucked inside the midfield to help in the build-up play.
With India pinged in their half and waiting to pounce on the counter-attack, Qatar tested the Indian defence with long-range shots and from set-pieces but all their attempts proved unsuccessful.
In all the games under Stimac so far, the Indian defence has proved to be the Achilles heel in the Croatian’s possession-based system. Questions were raised if they had the temperament to sustain pressure for entire ninety minutes after being guilty of capitulating and throwing away healthy leads in the last few games.
When Qatar pressed relentlessly and closed down spaces early on, Bheke and Dessai came under the pump initially but grew into the game with every passing minute. Sandesh Jhinghan and Adil Khan displayed their aerial prowess during clearances. The centre-back duo also made vital interceptions and last-ditch tackles to negate the threat of striker Almoez Ali, who cut an isolated figure all evening.
The clean sheet was largely down to Gurpreet, who stood tall and covered his guard whenever the opposition tried to penetrate. The Bengaluru FC glovesman was spot on with his positioning and produced some fine reflex saves that kept India alive in the contest.
A solid defensive base also encouraged India to push forward and take the attack to Qatar as the game opened up in the second half.
Sahal’s close-control dribbling and Udanta’s pace wreaked havoc in the opposition half whenever India bombed forward, the latter finding himself on the end of a couple of gilt-edged opportunities. But with the final touch missing, India missed an opportunity to pile further pressure on the Asian Champions and look for three full points.
However, Stimac asserts that it’s only a matter of time.
“Qatar deserved more from this game. They created more, they had more chances, also from corners. But we also had our chances and it will bring experience. When we become a more experienced side, we will learn to score when Udanta is one-on-one. We will make better decisions than we did tonight. It was a great experience for us. All credit to my players, I am very proud of them. But the message to the team is to keep yourself down as it is just a point,” he said at the post-match press conference.
Stimac’s cautious and pragmatic approach paid dividends in a match where defeat seemed like the most probable result. For now, they have shown they are ready to march to the next level.
“We have been working on the mindset in the last few months. It’s all about the mindset – If you get it right, you can achieve great things. Everyone can get fit. Technically we can play football the way we like. But to have the right mindset and to become a winner, I cannot do everything. We have a great future in front of us and from teams like Qatar, we need to have the willingness to learn from them and work hard.
“We don’t mind (learning). That’s the beauty of football. Where there is danger, there’s an opportunity. You have a choice. If you opt for danger, you will get beaten and you go home without taking your chance. And if you take the opportunity like we did today, you have something to take out of the game. This point was well deserved for us,” he added.
In what proved to be a game for the ages, Stimac’s men not only kept their World Cup hopes alive but also reminded the Indian football fan they have every right to dream big. And given the way they stood toe to toe against Asian champions Qatar, they can hope for many more special nights like these.