India resume their World Cup qualification campaign after nearly two years as they face Asian champions Qatar in Doha on Thursday.
With India’s hopes of making it to the next round of the World Cup qualifiers all but over, the focus will be on making the cut to the 2023 AFC Asian Cup. A top-three finish in the ongoing qualifying campaign will book India’s place in the final round of Asian Cup qualifiers. Finish below and India may have to play a playoff to just get to that round.
India currently occupy the fourth spot, a point behind Afghanistan and a point above Bangladesh and their matches against those two teams hold greater significance.
Group E table
But Igor Stimac would be hoping to receive a boost with a solid performance against Qatar, a team they held to a shock 0-0 draw in the reverse fixture.
In that drawn game in 2019 also, Qatar dominated throughout with waves of attacks on the Indian citadel. It was to the credit of goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Sandesh Jhingan-led defence, that India could deny the Qataris a win. The reactions of the Indian players at the end of match showed how much the result it meant to them.
India’s performance, however, has gone south since then while Qatar, the group toppers, have come into Thursday match on a high.
They beat Luxembourg (1-0) and Azerbaijan (2-1) and played out a 1-1 draw against Ireland in the international friendly matches in March. India are coming into this match after a demoralising 0-6 drubbing against the UAE in an international friendly.
Indian football: Can under-fire Igor Stimac find solutions to pressing problems facing Blue Tigers?
On top of that, India’s preparation has been hit hard as they had to cancel a national camp scheduled in early May in Kolkata. The team reached Doha on May 19 only to find that the players would not get the facilities they would have wanted, PTI reported.
Stimac himself had expressed the frustration, saying that it was “not an ideal preparation” for the World Cup qualifiers.
“Qatar are one of the top teams in Asia. They have had some decent results against top European and South American teams in the recent past,” talisman Sunil Chhetri said.
“The last time we took a point against them makes us confident as a team. We understand that they will come out all guns blazing at us, and we need to stick together as a team.”
On the positive side, Stimac will have the chance to field close to a full-strength Indian team after a long time with all the core players available for selection and without injury concern.
That 2019 match against Qatar did not have talisman Sunil Chhetri due to viral fever and his return now to the side will surely boost the confidence of the young Indian side.
Chhetri also missed the two international friendlies in March, including the one against UAE, as he was recovering from Covid-19.
According to reports, however, Chinglensana Singh and Rowllin Borges are doubtful for the game with Adil Khan and Pronay Halder likey to take their place in the line-up.
India usually line up in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3- formation but there are chances that Stimac may opt for a back three against the much-fancied Qatar.
Felix Sanchez Bas has no major injury concerns and is expected to put out a full-strength side for the game against India. Considering the result last time out, it is unlikely that Qatar will take India lightly.
Qatar are expected to line up in their 3-5-2 formation with a lethal attacking line-up with top striker Almoez Ali and Hasan Al-Haydos leading the pack.
The Asian champions don’t tinker with their line-up too much and are expected to start their usual suspects against India.
India XI: Amrinder Singh (GK), Sandesh Jhingan, Adil Khan, Rahul Bheke, Pritam Kotal, Akash Mishra, Glan Martins, Apuia, Sunil Chhetri, Brandon Fernandes, Manvir Singh
Qatar XI: Saad Al Sheeb (GK), Bassam Al-Rawi, Boualem Khoukhi, Tarek Salman, Ro-Ro, Hassan Al-Haydos, Karim Boudiaf, Abdulaziz Hatem, Abdelkarim Hassen, Mohammed Muntari, Almoez Ali
Head to head
India and Qatar have faced each other just twice in the past. Both meetings were 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 in 1996.
After a solid start, India conceded six goals in twenty minutes either side of half-time to suffer one of their worse defeats. The second game was in 2019 when India held the home side to a 0-0 draw.
It had felt like a significant result and something for Stimac to build on for the future, but like many previous occasions, it has so far proved to be nothing more than a false dawn for Indian football. But, with another crucial phase coming up in the team’s quest to improve, the under-pressure coach could really use another boost.
(With PTI inputs)