When Igor Stimac raised his hands and celebrated with a roar after referee blew the final whistle, when centre-back Adil Khan rushed to give every Indian player a good hard squeeze, when Gurpreet Singh Sandhu furiously pointed to his fans that he's the deserving No 1 for his team, there's a possibility that you'd think Indian football team had pulled off a miracle. Maybe it isn't, but a draw against the Asian champions is still an unlikely result.
In their second qualifying match for the FIFA World Cup 2022, India held Felix Sanchez Bas' Qatar to a goalless draw in Doha's Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium. Despite their captain and most influential player " Sunil Chhetri " missing the match due to fever, India's organised defence and a brave Gurpreet helped them earn a point against the World Cup 2022 hosts. After conceding two late goals in their opening match against Oman in Guwahati a few days back to lose all three points, India will cherish this match for a long time.
Stimac made five changes to the team that started against Oman. Before the match, doubts persisted about Chhetri's fitness and he didn't make it to the squad. Ashique Kuruniyan was benched along with Subhasish Bose and Brandon Fernandes. Sahal Abdul Samal got the much-needed start in the attack along with Manvir Singh who replaced Chhetri. Mandar Rao Dessai and Nikhil Poojary also made their way to the starting XI.
As expected, Qatar started the match by dominating possession. Too soon in the match, Indian midfielders went back and the Qatari players used the space to their advantage. They also tried to break the Indian defence with a flurry of diagonal balls, but ended up short when it came to finishing. In the 10th minute, Qatar's captain Hassan Al-Haydos collected the ball on the edge of the box and unleashed a shot but failed to beat the Indian goalkeeper.
It was an inspiring performance from the Bengaluru FC shot-stopper, who showed his calibre quite a few times to deny Qatar from taking a lead in the match. Once again, it was Al-Haydos who came close to scoring with a long-ranger but Gurpreet thwarted the danger. After some poor finishing, the hosts came close twice just before the half-time. Abdelkarim Hassan went for the glory with a powerful shot from outside the box, but Gurpreet's strong hands came into the way. Just seconds later, Almoez Ali hit a left-footer on target but Gurpreet, once again, came up with a fine save.
In the second half, India showed more confidence going forward during counter-attacks. Stimac's decision to bench Sahal for the Oman match raised a few eyebrows, with the Indian attacker showing a lot of promise in the Intercontinental Cup. Against Qatar, whenever Sahal got the ball, he tried to create chances. His dribbling skills might have impressed football legend Xavi, who was in the house watching the match. Meanwhile, Qatar kept creating chances but kept failing to break the deadlock. Al-Haydos took charge for a free-kick on the edge of the box and his shot was on target but Gurpreet's positioning was good and the goalkeeper cleared the ball away.
It's difficult to score against Qatar and India head coach Stimac would've thought about taking the set-piece route to make some impact. Sahal almost succeeded when he tried an audacious shot from an Anirudh Thapa corner. Minutes later, Udanta Singh, who showed his impeccable fitness with darting runs on the wings, could've broken the deadlock with a curler from outside the box, but the ball was just above the crossbar,
Post the 75-minute mark, it was all about India keeping their nerves and not losing their concentration. On a number of occasions in past, India were guilty of throwing the matches away in the final stage. They did it against Syria and they also suffered against Oman. On Tuesday though, despite constant attacks from the hosts, Indian held on and ensured they played out a draw.
The qualifiers for the mega event in Qatar have just started and in terms of impact on the group and table, India's draw doesn't hold much significance. Qatar are still favourites to win the group followed by Oman. India will have to win their matches against Afghanistan and Bangladesh to raise any hopes of finishing second in the group. But credit where it is due for the fight they showed after the heart-breaking defeat against Oman. To come to Qatar and stopping them from scoring is no mean achievement. Only Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and now India have prevented Qatar from scoring this year.
"Everyone played their hearts out, and gave everything out on the pitch. That enabled us to come back to the dressing room, satisfied, and with a very crucial point," Gurpreet said after the match.
In their opening match of the 2019 Asian Cup, India put out a superb performance to defeat Thailand 4-1, which also bolstered their chances of making to the next round. However, they lost their next two matches which resulted in them finishing last in the group. Indian football team is capable of pulling off these surprising results, but they should strive for consistency. A hard-earned draw against a champion team is great but a defeat against Bangladesh or Afghanistan " India's next opponents " won't help. The domestic season will start soon and the players will play regularly for their respective clubs. This should help the team in the remaining qualifying matches.