It is the 66th minute of the match. India are trailing by a goal in their crucial World Cup qualifier match against Afghanistan and Sunil Chhetri walks up to Brandon Fernandes at the near-corner to exchange a few words before heading back to the 18-yard box.

The first time that happened, it was the very same Chhetri-Brandon combo that fetched India their first goal at the 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign.

Unmarked, Chhetri sneaks in behind Zohib Islam Amiri as the rest of Afghanistan defence is caught napping. The ball bounces off the turf and with a gilt-edged opportunity to score an open header, Chhetri flicks his shot over the bar.

That moment summed up India’s night in Tajikstan as they were left to rue what could have been yet again. Debutant Seiminlen Doungel’s injury-time header salvaged a point for India but their winless streak now extends to seven matches.

After holding Asian Champions Qatar to a goalless draw in September, a second straight draw leaves them fourth in group E of the Asian Qualifiers, six points behind Erwin Koeman’s Oman who are placed second.

Thapa dropped

Centre-back Anas Edathodika flew back to India for personal reasons a day before the game, leaving India short of another option in central defence. India coach Igor Stimac named a strong 4-2-3-1 formation, the attack almost similar to the one he played in his first game against Curacao.

Midfielder Anirudh Thapa had started in all of India’s game during their 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign but Stimac took a huge gamble by replacing him with Fernandes. Defensive midfielder Pranoy Halder returned from injury while Rahul Bheke partnered Adil Khan in central defense with Pritam Kotal taking the right-back slot.

India didn’t put a foot wrong in the first 15 minutes or so. They dominated possession with Fernandes orchestrating the attack, operating as a deep-lying playmaker. Full-backs Kotal and Mandar Rao Dessai pushed up high while Ashique Kuruniyan and Udanta Singh played as inverted wingers.

But that early attacking intent fizzled out soon as Afghanistan exerted greater control. Most of their attacks came down the right flank, as they targeted Dessai, a winger-turned-defender whose defensive frailties were exposed again. They looked threatening from corners and kept knocking on the door as India found themselves under the cosh.

Khan, on many instances, got sucked out of his position to provide cover for Dessai as Afghanistan offered no breathing space to the FC Goa full-back.

With Halder high up the field, India left big gaps in midfield. The visitors faced trouble keeping their shape while defending and also failed to win second balls as Afghanistan grew in confidence.

During their drab 1-1 draw against Bangladesh in the previous game, India lacked the cutting edge in the final third and weren’t ruthless enough in their approach. The same pattern emerged on Thursday too and they were first to concede a goal, yet again.

Minutes before Zelfy Nazary scored a stunner from close range at the stroke of half time, the Afghan center-back Sharif Mohammed was allowed to run right from his own half to India’s box before being brought down by Sahal Abdul Samad. The warning signs were there and they were ignored.

Super subs

Stimac took out Dessai for winger Farukh Choudhary after the break as Kuruniyan dropped to left-back, a familiar position for both club and country. India went all guns blazing and made the right moves in what was an improved second-half display.

They exerted pressure on the opposition by pressing high, committed more bodies forward and launched waves after waves of attack at the Afghan goal. Halder began playing deep but Samad, India’s main creative outlet was quiet for vast swathes of the game, leaving Fernandes with a lot of work to do.

Stimac brought on Manvir Singh for Samad at the hour mark and from that point on, India’s play was more direct and created most of their chances from crosses with full-backs Kotal and Ashique getting involved too.

They had more attempts too but were profligate in front of goal. The best chances fell to Chhetri but India’s most prolific goal-scorer fluffed his chances in what was arguably his worst performance under Stimac.

Afghanistan were defending desperately and in a last roll of the dice, Stimac took off another defender, bringing winger Doungel on for Kotal.

Trailing by a goal and with time running down, they hoofed the ball up the field in search of a goal during the dying stages.

It was during injury time that Doungel headed Fernandes’ corner to save India the blushes but with just three attempts on goal, it was a performance that left a lot to be desired. Stimac rued the missed chances as India were wasteful in front of goal.

“There was plenty of football. Good action, chances. At the end, neither of us can be happy with a draw, but that’s how it finished,” Stimac said at the post-match press conference.

“Somehow, I have a feeling that we deserved more out of this game. We created more chances than Afghanistan. We were not lucky enough to score from these clear situations,” he added.

India continue to be unbeaten away but this was the second occasion where they dropped points against a lower-ranked team; the second occasion they messed up in a game that they needed to win.

Stimac’s team need to finish at least second in the group to go through and that looks unlikely as they are now four points behind Oman, who are in second place, with two games to go.

For now, India’s World Cup dream lies in tatters. But a win against Oman in their next game on November 19 might just reignite the beacon of hope again.