Despite a disastrous start to the match, Igor Stimac’s men could hold their heads high after it…
The expectation from most quarters as India went into their 2022 World Cup qualifying encounter against Qatar on Thursday was that they would be on the receiving end of a hammering.
Though India had held Qatar to a goalless draw at the very same venue back in September 2019, that was seen as an anomaly – a fluke result. Qatar, reigning Asian Champions, were keen to ‘put things right’ themselves.
However, what transpired was not an overwhelming victory for Qatar but a narrow 1-0 win against a bealeaguered India which was battling multiple odds at the same time. Qatar needed a 33rd-minute goal from Abdel Aziz Hatem to notch a hard-earned win against a disciplined Indian defence that weathered almost everything that came their way.
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India themselves had one or two chances to score and could have, on another day, eked out a draw or even a win. That was how unimpressive Qatar were on Thursday.
So, this result changes nothing realistically in terms of India’s chances of finishing third in the group. But with two key games coming up, what did we learn from Igor Stimac’s men’s performance on Thursday?
Battling odds off the field and on the field
The 1-0 loss in many ways should be a result India should not be disappointed in any way, given the ordeal they’ve been through. The players, barring those from the FC Goa set-up (only Glan Martins played on Thursday) and Bengaluru FC, had not seen competitive action since early March. And many other key players were not even able to train professionally given that the most parts of the country were in lockdown following the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
India flew to Qatar without even organising a training camp or playing a friendly and their preparation consisted of only two-to-three hours of training for the last last 10 days.
And then, the team were further handicapped with injuries and a Covid-19 infection. Key midfielder Rowllin Borges suffered a hamstring injury and was ruled out of this game while another starting midfielder in Anirudh Thapa was diagnosed with Covid-19.
Without two key midfielders, India had to give a debut to Glan Martins who actually toiled hard for the team. And India, playing a 5-4-1 formation, looked really comfortable dealing with Qatar’s attacks until a fateful error by Rahul Bheke, who started as the right wing-back.
Having received a harsh yellow card for his first foul of the game, Bheke committed a blunder by stopping a ball with his outstretched arm, giving the referee no option but to send him off. What it did was hamstring India who had made a good start to the game. And it was no surprise that Qatar opened the scoring soon after.
The ‘ATK Mohun Bagan’ defence holds firm
Stimac, in a bid to neutralise the Qatari attack, started with a five-man backline. The central defensive trio – Sandesh Jhingan, Pritam Kotal and Subhasish Bose – all play for ATK Mohun Bagan who had the stingiest defence in the Indian Super League (ISL) last season.
That solidity and understanding translated to the India colours as well and the trio were very good in thwarting the Qatari attacks. They were brave in their challenges when the game called for it and good in the air too. Credit must also go to Suresh Singh Wangjam who deputised at right-back after Bheke’s exit.
Though India lined up in a socially distanced manner before the game, there was nothing socially distanced in defence during the game. India packed the penalty box with bodies and forced Qatar into going for quite a few long-rangers.
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, as usual, was at his best, narrowing down angles when he could and being authoritative in the air. He also pulled off a few good saves. At the end of the day, limiting Qatar to just one goal at their home turf despite playing 70-odd minutes with just 10-men is not a bad result.
Ashique Kuruniyan needs to play upfront
India did not have the luxury to have a ball-playing midfielder in the team after Borges and Thapa were ruled out. Martins and Suresh, who started in midfield, are more of workhorses rather than passmasters. As such, India did not have the chance to play the ball out of midfield and give meaningful service to their forwards, given that the likes of Brandon Fernandes were rested with the upcoming games in mind.
In such a situation, it was Ashique Kuruniyan who explored his adventurous side from his starting position as left wing-back. The Keralite was seen embarking on runs, troubling the Qatari players, on quite a few occasions. He has sort of become a left-back at Bengaluru FC in the recent past after emerging as one of the most promising wingers in the country.
He created quite a few chances in the game, with one of them a dangerous cross that almost saw Manvir Singh score in the first half. Kuruniyan also went on a mazy run that opened up the entire Qatari defence bar the last man. In fact, he looked eager to make things happen throughout the game.
His performance against Qatar was proof that Kuruniyan needs to play upfront more where his abilities come of help to the team. Against Bangladesh and Afghanistan, Stimac should consider playing the enterprising footballer in attack.