The Blue Tigers brought their 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign to a close with a disjointed 1-1 draw against Afghanistan, the point earned ensuring them a place in the final round of qualifying for the 2023 Asian Cup to be held in China. They will most likely face one of the teams that finish fourth in their World Cup qualifying groups on a home and away basis to determine who gets a slot at next year's continental tournament.
Against a combative Afghanistan side, India started well but after the first half an hour or so, the Afghans took control and were the better team over the remainder of the game. This should concern head coach Igor Stimac, on whom the jury is still out, having been recently handed a contract extension until the end of September. His team selection consisted of a Bengaluru FC core, from goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, defender Rahul Bheke, midfielder Suresh Singh Wangjam, wide man Ashique Kuruniyan, and skipper Sunil Chhetri upfront. Lining up in a 4-3-3 formation, it was Chhetri who played through the middle with Manvir Singh on the right and Ashique on the left in a traditional winger's role. The Goan duo of Brandon Fernandes and Glan Martins lined up alongside Suresh in midfield.
India made a good start to the game, keeping most of the ball and not allowing their opponents any clear-cut chances in the opening 30 minutes. The first chance came in the 10th minute when Glan pressed high up the field and won the ball close to the Afghanistan penalty area. He found Chhetri whose shot was saved comfortably by goalkeeper Ovays Azizi. Both teams failed to keep hold of the ball for a significant period to create any chances and the one thing of note which happened until the 40th minute was a booking for coach Stimac who was deemed to have complained too much for the referee's liking.
Three minutes before halftime, Amir Sharifi got Afghanistan's first shot on target which did not trouble Gurpreet. That should have almost counted as a warning as Afghanistan started the second half like they ended the first, with more intent than the lacklustre Indians who seemed to be struggling for ideas. Forward Omid Popalzay threatened next, just before the hour mark, when he struck a sweet volley which also went straight into Gurpreet's arms. Popalzay was at it again a few minutes later when he found some space on the edge of the box but his shot, off-balance, went over the crossbar.
Skipper Chhetri had India's first chance of the second half with a free-kick close to goal, won by Ashique, but he skied his effort and was substituted a minute later for Liston Colaco. The match seemed on course for a stalemate considering the lack of fluidity exhibited by both sides but India were gifted a goal in the 75th minute when keeper Azizi spilled a routine cross from Ashique and the ball bounced into the net. By this point, it was looking as though a mistake like that one, or something special would decide the outcome of the match and the Blue Tigers would've thought the exact same thing but Afghanistan had other ideas.
Having been sent on as a substitute in the 73rd minute, 18-year-old Hossein Zamani gave a reminder of his huge potential as he curled an equaliser past Gurpreet into the far corner in the 82nd minute to draw his team level. Zamani, who was born in Iran, plays for Telstar in the Netherlands' second division having come through the Ajax youth system.
India would have expected to finish third in a group consisting Qatar, Oman, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh but dropped a point against the latter two. Having adopted a more proactive, ball-playing approach as opposed to the pragmatism of his predecessor Stephen Constantine, Stimac is yet to convince that he is the right man for the job and the results speak for themselves as India have managed only two wins from 15 matches during his reign.
Having given their national team debuts to a number of promising youngsters, he is yet to settle on a first-choice starting XI. A lack of goals seems to be the most concerning bit with the Blue Tigers having failed to score more than two since he took charge. There has been an over-reliance on Chhetri but that is a discussion for another day.
At best, India have looked like plucky underdogs, with a goalless draw against Qatar and a fighting 0-1 loss with 10 men to show for. At worst, there is the 0-6 shocker against UAE where a young, experimental side was torn to shreds by one of Asia's more decent teams. There has been a lot of talk of the progress made by Indian football and unrealistic goals like qualifying for the World Cup in the next decade are commonly debated on social media. But as skipper Chhetri said a couple of years ago, regularly qualifying for the Asia Cup and doing well on the continental circuit is a must before dreaming of making it to the world stage.