A 0-6 defeat in the previous match that stretched Indian football team’s winless run to ten games, lack of game time for players and a hard quarantine in the build-up to the contest — it was hardly ideal preparation for Igor Stimac’s men for a clash against Asian champions Qatar that was a home game on paper but being played in the opponent’s backyard.
Matters got worse when Rahul Bheke was sent off rather harshly for two bookable offences as early as the 16th minute of the match with Qatar very much already on the front foot.
If the previous match was anything to go by, a massive capitulation was on the cards at the same venue where India under Stimac had pulled off one of the greatest results in Indian football’s history two years back. But, to their credit, India hung on and even managed to compete against their illustrious opponents as the night ended in a 1-0 defeat.
World Cup qualifiers, India vs Qatar, as it happened: Battling Blue Tigers go down to Qatar
Keeping their cool
There was enough in the decision to sent off Bheke for India to lose their cool, but they stuck to their guns. A big sign of their focus and perhaps even their intent came in the 29th minute when Manvir Singh nearly got on the end of an Ashique Kuruniyan cross to give India a surprise lead.
But another blow followed. Qatar broke through when it seemed India had just about enough bodies in the box to clear the danger but Abdulaziz Hatem pounced to break the deadlock. Just 33 minutes in, Qatar were a goal and a man up on their own patch in an away game.
Even half-time seemed far away. A painfully long night was in the offing for the Indian football faithful.
India, however, kept at it. Midfielder Suresh Singh switched to right wing back, striker and captain Sunil Chhetri dropped deep to defend and India reached half time with no more damage done.
Stimac had a chance to reset the group and his move was to bring off Chhetri, the leader of the pack for Udanta Singh, a man with an almost unlimited capacity to run but precious little form behind him.
Probably the right move with much more crucial tests ahead but India needed to find leaders from somewhere else. They found one between the goalposts in the form of Gurpreet Singh Sandhu who probably had the edge over some of the Qatar forwards from the previous match against them. It was as if he had continued from that heroic display in the 0-0 draw over two years ago.
Qatar went for the kill early in the second half. From beautiful one-touch passing moves that cut open the Indian defence on more than one occasion to testing crosses and a barrage of long-range efforts, every Qatari endeavour on the Indian goal ended with inevitably with a Gurpreet Singh Sandhu intervention, sometimes with his strong palms or otherwise with his long legs.
After the hour mark, frustration crept into the Qatari ranks. Coach Stimac sensed it and made a number of attacking changes bringing in Apuia, Liston Colaco and Akash Mishra to unleash Ashqiue further up the pitch, but Qatar’s numerical superiority told every time India tried to build attacks.
In stoppage time, the Asian champions seemed content with keeping the ball from the ten men of India and seeing the game through, which could be seen as a compliment to India’s performance on the night.
Credit for it also goes to the man at the helm. With questions over his future, Stimac produced a response from his players after a damaging defeat against UAE that raised questions over both the coach and his wards.
But for the Croatian, mere moral victories like the one his team achieved in the loss to Qatar won’t suffice in the long run and perhaps rightly so. India, who are in their longest winless run in over a century, need results to meet their objectives.
While performances like these against top sides like Qatar are laudable, it means little if India fail to beat Afghanistan and Bangladesh in the next few games. Those two teams will provide India with completely different tests that they must equally know how to pass.
Against Qatar, India almost benefited to an extent by not having the ball. It helped them retain their shape and not lose their organisation. Against Afghanistan and Bangladesh, the tables will turn and India will not just have the onus to take the game to the sides, they will have to showcase other sides of their play to win those games.
Even on the limited occasions that India got the ball against Qatar, the lack of precision in their passing let them down. Teams like Bangladesh and Afghanistan will feed on such sloppiness to not just frustrate India but also to hurt them as we have already seen in the current qualifiers campaign.
India definitely impressed against Qatar but whether they show their technical abilities and some much-needed application to a different challenge in the next two matches will likely determine their Stimac’s fate and more importantly the team’s immediate future as they hope to make it to the 2023 Asian Cup.