India had to survive by the skin of their teeth at times at Doha on Tuesday but survive they did in incredible fashion to hold reigning Asian champions Qatar to a goal-less draw in their second match of the 2022 World Cup qualifying Round two.
It was a clean sheet which was largely down to the individual brilliance of custodian Gurpreet Singh Sandhu who put in one of his best showings in an India shirt and an organised display by the defence.
The Bengaluru FC goalkeeper, along with the central-defensive partnership of Sandesh Jhingan and Adil Khan, was at the forefront of India’s solid display which saw them earn their first point in Group E of the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.
Qatar’s prolific attack lay siege on the Indian goal from the very first minute as expected but India were still able to stand firm with the help of a little bit of luck, some excellent goalkeeping and solid defensive organisation.
While Qatar’s attackers were guilty of wasting a few gilt-edged chances, they were largely restricted to long-range shots from outside the box and a plethora of corners with India crowding out the middle of the park and forcing them to go wide.
Igor Stimac set his men up to defend in numbers with a clear game plan based on a counter-attacking system. It nearly paid off even more handsomely for India in the end with the visitors coming close to snatching an unlikely lead on a couple of occasions in the dying minutes.
The Croatian’s hands were tied severely before the game had even kicked off with Sunil Chhetri and Ashique Kuruniyan missing out due to injuries. Qatar too, were missing their star player Akram Afif.
While India were put on the back-foot for the majority of the tie by Qatar, there were still plenty of encouraging signs of the visitors. The visitors were starved of possession for large parts of the game but the impressive aspect was that they showed no panic when they did have it.
The midfield combination of Sahal Abdul Samad, Rowllin Borges and Anirudh Thapa were particularly impressive in that regard with the trio not afraid to drive the ball forward in the face of Qatar’s press. While Borges was solid again at the base, Samad and Thapa did not shirk away from their defensive duties either with the work-rate from the young duo nothing short of exemplary.
It was clear to see the vision Stimac was trying to implement and the Croatian could have had an even better result if India had been more careful with their final pass. It could have been easy for India's players to just hoof the ball clear on every occasion after the kind of pressure that the hosts exerted on the night. Yet, they tried to remain committed towards a technical game and that was a refreshing change from the past.
The heroes of the night, however, were undeniably Gurpeet and the defence despite the Qatari attackers barely giving them a moment of respite. The levels of concentration remained high throughout the ninety minutes but the pleasing part was that their fitness lasted the distance as well unlike what was made out in the loss to Oman.
Stimac had insisted that it was not the fitness but the poor use of it which was a problem against Oman, ie, Indian players were guilty of making a host of unnecessary runs on Thursday. Against Qatar, however, that was not the case. They learned from that experience and made sure their fitness was put to good use.
The centre-back partnership of Jhingan and Adil was excellent with the duo not afraid to play the ball of defence despite the pressure exerted by Oman’s attacker.
To become the first Asian side to avoid defeat against Qatar in 2019 after the kind of year they have had is as impressive as it gets for Stimac and India. A loss to Qatar could have pushed them back significantly just two matches into their Group E qualifying campaign but they now live to breathe another day and will fancy their chances in the next set of clashes against Afghanistan and Bangladesh.