The Blue Tigers succumbed to Qatar, yet showed glimpses of progress and adaptability.
When the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifying fixture kicked off between India and Qatar, the Indian football team, at best, aimed to match their previous result on the same venue. The Blue Tigers held the Asian Champions to a draw in the reverse fixture, putting up an incredible display of resilience.
Igor Stimac’s side, however, faced a major setback after Rahul Bheke’s sending off in the 17th minute. Defending against a ferocious Qatari attack with ten men meant that an outcome similar to the previous meeting was unlikely. India fell ultimately short just by a scoreline of 1-0, courtesy of Abdulaziz Hatem’s solitary goal in the 33rd minute.
It is not an usual sight to see a team conceding 35 shots and keeping only 25% possession fall short by just a goal. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s heroics (as usual), in addition to Qatar’s inefficient shot-taking strategy, stood out as the primary takeaways.
However, Igor Stimac’s tactical adaptation was a major factor in nullifying the Crimsons.
Starting off with a five-man defensive line, Sandesh Jhingan paired up with Subhashish Bose and Pritam Kotal to form the defensive core. After a few hiccups in the starting minutes, the trio was able to contain Qatar’s Almoez Ali and Mohammed Muntari fairly well.
With India down to ten men, Stimac’s side formed a compact defending shape, with little space between their lines. Suresh Singh, originally paired up with Glan Martins, took over the vacant slot. The first of many decisions that went into Stimac’s favor, Suresh delivered when it mattered the most for the Blue Tigers.
The Indian football team dealt with the Qatari pressure with the same compactness, in addition to minimizing the threat that Hassan Al-Haydos possessed from the left.
Having to defend vigorously took away India’s chances of getting forward. Even with limited opportunities in the midfield, debutant Martins was spot-on with his vital interceptions, shielding the shorthanded defence well.
Regardless of winning most duels and keeping the Indian forwards completely out of the game, Qatar were rustic with their final delivery. Despite taking 24 shots in the first half, Qatar could barely manage clear-cut chances.
The second half was where things got better for the Indian football team. Additionally, Stimac’s approach of preferring pace over his regular possession-based approach showed some good prospects. The Blue Tigers allowed just 11 shots and were noticeably better in going forward and keeping the ball compared to the first half.
Igor Stimac’s bold decision of bringing in Udanta for Sunil Chhetri could have gone either way. India’s intent of not letting Qatar have the ball easily like the first half could be traced from this move.
Chhetri spent the first 45 minutes mainly dropping and leading the first line of defence. Udanta, brought in at half time, led the press and was effective in the right side. The forward was also key in the past encounter, giving Abdelkarim Hassan hard time at the right side.
The move also prompted Manvir Singh to shift as a number nine. Having started as a right winger, Manvir’s performance got noticeably better as the game grew. Accompanied by two fast players, Bipin Singh and Udanta in the wide areas, India’s two major chances fell to Manvir’s boots. The story would have been different for India if their only shot on goal was converted, but it was not bound to happen.
Additionally, the cameos from Liston Colaco, Sahal Abdul Samad, Apuia and Akash Mishra served the purpose well for the Blues. It would not be an overstatement to say India dominated the last fifteen minutes, working noticeably better than the Qatari side.
Although it all came down to Gurpreet Singh Sadhu’s heroics yet again with nine saves, India managed to hold on to the situation well. Playing a far superior side, who looked desperate to get a revenge, came with its perks but there can be a lot of positives to take from this fixture.
The Indian football team will now have two more chances, the first being against Bangladesh. The Blue Tigers now have three points from six matches and a loss against Qatar would not hurt them much. Instead, this performance would give them a lot of optimism against Bangladesh.