Just five days after the heartbreaking defeat against Oman, India will be facing the Asian Champions Qatar in their second match of the second round of the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.
In their first match, Sunil Chhetri and Co suffered a narrow loss against Oman in Guwahati on 5 September despite India taking the lead early on and impressing with some high-pressing football. The Blue Tigers lost the steam towards the fag end of the match and defensive errors allowed the visiting side to score twice in last 10 minutes to collect all three points.
Qatar are already guaranteed of a spot in 2022 World Cup by virtue of being the hosts and are also the favourites to finish at the top of the group E of which India are also part along with Oman, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
A second-place finish in the group with strong performance could open the gate for the third round of qualification; however, that for now looks like a distant dream. And there are various factors behind it apart from the tough qualifying group, most of them are local. Still, good performances in the group would allow India to sail smoothly to 2023 Asian Cup. In that aspect, the Oman loss would have hurt the team badly.
And the Qatari challenge is going to be even more daunting. The Middle-Eastern nation forced their way into the Asian elite with a stunning victory in the United Arab Emirates earlier this year as they conquered the 2019 Asian Cup. Qatar were also recently part of Copa America, playing out a draw with Paraguay. In their first qualifier, the 2022 World Cup hosts handed Afghanistan a 6-0 drubbing with forward Almoez Ali scoring a hat-trick.
Regardless of the strength of the opposition, India need to give it their best shot. "As soon as the Oman match ended, we shifted our focus immediately to the next match. Qatar are the strongest team in the group and playing them will not be easy. However, it's a great opportunity to learn from," said India head coach Igor Stimac.
The team is undergoing a transition with new young players walking into the side under recently-appointed coach Stimac. Indian football is also going through a long off-season which made preparations for qualifiers a headache for Stimac. King's Cup and Intercontinental cup matches were strewn with multiple changes and new recruits. As a result, the line-up fielded against Oman proved to be an almost perfect combination.
Injuries and lack of peak fitness condition due to missing consistent footballing action, however, have exposed India's weakness in the recent matches. The high pressing, high defensive line tactics allowed India to create multiple opportunities as they took the lead but ran out of the gas in the second half with Rahul Bheke being guilty of making mistakes on the occasion of both goals. It will be a huge ask to expect the same set of players to put in a similar sort of shift against Qatar. And that should prompt Stimac to make changes to his starting XI, as he also pointed out recently.
"Obviously, we have to change 4-5 players. We'll see how everyone is feeling. There is no reason to fear and we shall look to score goals and play good football," Stimac said.
Bheke has been a regular under the Croatian coach but his tendency to go missing from time to time during a game could hand Pritam Kotal a return to the side. Adil Khan has also been poor but a possible rest for Sandesh Jhingan, who recently returned from injury, could work in his favour. Sahal Abdul Samad and Lallianzuala Chhangte could also get into the XI to provide fresh legs and enhance attacking prospects. Another reason which rationalises possible changes is the fact that India have always looked vulnerable whenever they have tried to defend deep. The same happened to them against Bahrain in the Asian Cup, when they conceded in extra-time to get knocked out of the tournament. Against Oman, they met with the same fate as they gave up high tempo football to drop deep in order to protect a lead.
In such a case, sticking to an all-guns-blazing style would be the best choice for the 103rd-ranked footballing nation as that allows them to deny spaces to opponents along with not allowing them to settle on the ball. Fitness will be an issue if visitors adopt the same approach and mixing up the starting XI will provide India some more breathing space.
"Chhetri cannot score every time," rued Stimac after Thursday's clash. The Bengaluru FC man was India's lone scorer on the night with his 72nd strike at international level but India need to find other goalscorers. There are also reports that Chhetri might sit out of this game and that could force a change. More importantly, India need to take every opportunity which comes across their way. Qatar are a high quality side and there would be very few openings. India paid the price for not taking chances in their last match, hopefully they have learnt from it.
On the other hand, Spanish manager Felix Sanchez Bas had led a football revolution in Qatar. The 62nd-ranked nation boasts of a host of attacking talents which could turn the evening into a nightmare for Indian defenders. Almoez is an obvious threat but players like Hassan Al-Haydos and Yusuf Abdurisag will pose constant threats from both the flanks.
The Qataris are heavy favourites for the clash but the match against a high profile team is an opportunity for India to make a statement. Tuesday's clash will be the toughest test of Stimac's brief reign so far but also an opportunity for his boys to show they are constantly improving.
The match will be played at Doha's Jassim bin Hamad Stadium on 10 September at 10.00 PM IST.
Qatar: Saad Sheeb, Meshal Barsham, Mohammed Al-Bakri, Pedro, Salem Al-Hajri, Tareq Salman, Abdulkarim Hassan, Boualem Khoukhi, Hassan Al-Haydos, Akram Afif, Abdulaziz Al-Ansari, Hashim Ali, Bassam Al-Rawl, Assim Madibo, Almoez Ali, Karim Boudiaf, Ali Afif, Musaab Keder, Ahmed Fathy, Yousef Abdelrazzaq, Al Mahdi Ali, Ahmed Alaaeldin, Abdulaziz Hatim, Abdullah Abdul Salam.
India: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Amrinder Singh, Kamaljit Singh, Vishal Kaith, Rahul Bheke, Nishu Kumar, Pritam Kotal, Anas Edathodika, Sandesh Jhingan, Narender Gahlot, Sarthak Golui, Adil Khan, Subhasish Bose, Mandar Rao Dessai, Nikhil Poojari, Udanta Singh, Anirudh Thapa, Raynier Fernandes, Vinit Rai, Sahal Abdul Samad, Brandon Fernandes, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Halicharan Narzary, Ashique Kuruniyan, Balwant Singh, Sunil Chhetri, Manvir Singh.