A sold out Kalinga Stadium awaits the Indian national team on Tuesday as they take on defending Asian champions Qatar in their second group match of the second round of 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.
India will be full of confidence after an impressive 1-0 away win in Kuwait, where India’s defensive solidity shone through on a big occasion to give Igor Stimac the perfect start to the qualifying campaign.
Qatar delivered a statement of intent in their first match in the group, as they beat Afghanistan 8-1 at home, with their star striker Almoez Ali scoring four goals in that game.
Does Stimac stick or twist?
India’s Croatian head coach made a few brave calls in the victory against Kuwait, none more so than benching Lallianzuala Chhangte, who then made a decisive impact as a substitute, assisting the winning goal for Manvir Singh, who started the game in Chhangte’s original position.
Apuia Ralte, who hadn’t made the squad for the last two national camps, came straight back into the starting XI, and proved a calming presence in midfield alongside Suresh Wangjam. Rahul Bheke came in to partner Sandesh Jhingan at the heart of India’s defence, and provided solidity as well.
So, all of Stimac’s calls worked wonders. None of those players have given him any reason to change the team again. Bheke, particularly, will have redemption on his mind against Qatar, having been sent off in the 17th minute the last time these two teams played against each other, in a game that Qatar won 1-0.
India are not likely to see much of the ball in this game, so the key will be to make the most of counter-attacking situations. The pace and strength of Manvir should be one outlet, but whether Chhangte or Naorem Mahesh Singh starts on the other side of Sunil Chhetri is a question for Stimac to answer.
Another point of contention could be the place of Sahal Abdul Samad, through no fault of his own. If Stimac feels the need for a slightly more defensive-minded player in midfield alongside Apuia and Suresh, Sahal could possibly make way for Anirudh Thapa in an attempt to make it harder for the Qataris in the build-up.
India’s most important player
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu played one of the games of his life in the previous World Cup qualifying campaign away in Qatar, in a game that finished 0-0. Qatar possess some of Asia’s best attacking players, in the likes of Akram Afif, Hassan Al-Haydos and Akram Afif. That night in Doha, they threw everything at Gurpreet, but he repelled everything.
Two sleeps away from the big one against Qatar ��
– Indian Football Team (@IndianFootball) November 19, 2023
It’s not going to be a lone wolf job for Gurpreet, though. He will demand near-perfection from those in front of him. Jhingan to put his body on the line of everything, Bheke to remain steady alongside, Akash Mishra and Nikhil Poojary to contest their one-vs-one battles fiercely. But when coming up against a side of Qatar’s pedigree, there is no doubt that they will create chances, they will have their shots on goal. For a man who generally relishes the big occasion, this is another one of those for Gurpreet.
If he and his defence can keep that backdoor shut through the opening exchanges and long enough into the game, there’s a chance that Qatar will try to force things a bit more and potentially open up a few spaces for India in an attacking sense. The game-plan is likely to be a counter-attacking one, and it relies on the big no.1’s clean sheet remaining intact for as long as he can manage it.
India have already shown once before in 2023 that they can go toe-to-toe against the better Asian sides, and that 2-2 draw against Iraq in September should give them some belief. But when the Asian champions come to town, the nature of the beast is that much stronger. Winning six points out of the first six available may have been even beyond some dreams that Stimac might have had, but India stand on the cusp of a golden opportunity. Can they grab it?