Starting blues in each half ended India’s unbeaten record at home. One that stretched 11 months and 15 games. For large swathes in between, India suffered on way to a 0-3 defeat but also produced moments that showed it is worth believing in this team when it comes to a third round berth in the 2026 World Cup qualifiers. One that would lead to a finals berth in the 2027 Asian Cup. Both would be firsts.
To goals in the fourth and 46th minutes from Moustafa Tarek Mashal and Almoez Ali and Yusuf Abdurisag’s 85th minute header, India replied by dollops of desperate defending and at least three chances, two of them in the first half, when they could have done better. If only Lalengmawia Ralte and Anirudh Thapa had kept their composure. The first move, in the 35th, saw India move the ball from left to right, had a cheeky back-heel inside Qatar’s penalty box from Udanta Singh for Thapa who set up Ralte. With the full goal in his line of sight, Ralte couldn’t test goalkeeper Meshaal Barsham.
As couldn’t Thapa in the 40th. All night, Sunil Chhetri had pressed alone. Once when central defender Boualel Khoukhi couldn’t sort out his feet, Chhetri stole and found Thapa whose outstep curler was off target. But proof of how much things have changed under Igor Stimac came in the 64th minute when under pressure, Suresh Wangjam turned and found Sahal Abdul Samad whose shot swerved away.
Even though an athletics track runs around the pitch, the Kalinga Stadium has a compact feel to it. Over two hours before kick-off they had lined up at the gates of this manicured stadium complex in a state that keeps giving to sport. There were cheers when India came out to warm up and again when Arsene Wenger, FIFA’s chief of Global Football Development, met the teams. As they were at the end after the match, fans giving India a rousing Vande Mataram send-off.
It was a different story through the game. The crowd was silenced when India failed to clear their lines following Qatar’s first corner-kick and Mashal turned and fired a snap shot. Qatar had served a warning even earlier but Akram Afif shot wide leading to coach Carlos Quieroz wrapping his head with his hands. But it had got a handful of away team fans making themselves heard over 11,389 fans.
It was Amrinder Singh’s mispass that begun that move which Afif couldn’t convert. And it was Singh’s inability to collect a shot at the near post that led to Ali stabbing home. Singh, Stimac explained, was rewarded for his loyalty to the national team and efforts at pushing Gurpreet Singh Sandhu to being the country’s No. 1. “He is why Gurpreet’s form for the country is different from what it is at the club,” said Stimac.
“Qatar are a different league with their physicality, passing and basic skills,” he said. “You always had the feeling that they will find space behind our backs.” In four-and-a-half years under him, India have never conceded this early and he put that down to nervousness. But India grew in the game and he was proud of the fight, the coach said.
Qatar’s superiority was never in doubt. They had 24 shots to India’s six, 62 per cent of the ball and had nine corner-kicks by the 31st minute. Afif and Ali switched flanks with ease and their press had India pinned near their penalty area. It was because central defenders Sandesh Jhingan and Rahul Bheke put their bodies on the line that the scoreline stayed 1-0 at the break. With a 4-1-4-1 formation where Ahmed Abdoulla linked the backline and the midfield and Tameem Alabdulla played lone striker, they attacked in numbers and such was the pressure that once Subhasish Bose needed three attempts to clear his line.
Stimac expected as much and used the game – India’s last before the Asian Cup in January – to check players in a few positions. Such as left-back Bose. Bose, he said, had trained hard but couldn’t find a place ahead of Akash Mishra. He was given a chance to prove himself and he did, said the India head coach. Blindsided by Abdurisag for the third goal he may have been but overall Bheke, Stimac said, had done enough to be a centre-back in the Asian Cup. Manvir Singh’s unavailability due to a muscle injury, which could take two weeks to heal, meant Stimac couldn’t see how the team would cope if Chhetri started on the bench, he said.
With six points, Qatar top the group but India’s most important result, Stimac said, had come against Kuwait. The hugs and smiles between Quieroz and Stimac, who know each other from their time in Iran, showed that neither was unhappy with how the evening went.