Coach Stimac wants his boys to enjoy the occasion

Source: AIFF Twitter

India face formidable Qatar in a crucial group stage fixture of the World Cup 2026 and Asian Cup 2027 qualifiers in Bhubaneswar on November 21 (Tuesday).

After the heartbreak of the loss to Australia in the cricket World Cup final, it’s time for Sunil Chhetri & Co to uplift the spirit of the nation against the hosts of the 2022 football World Cup in front of the home crowd.

While the task appears challenging for the Blue Tigers, their impressive start with a 1-0 win against Kuwait is a significant morale booster. Moreover, having secured a hard-fought draw against Qatar in the 2022 World Cup qualifiers should add to India’s confidence. Twelve members of that 2019 squad are with the team and that brings valuable experience.

Qatar, the reigning Asian Cup champions, have meticulously prepared for the qualifiers. They kicked off their campaign with an 8-1 victory over Afghanistan. As they aim to maintain their form against India, the Blue Tigers, under the guidance of coach Igor Stimac, are gunning for a top-two finish in the group, which will ensure qualification for the next round.

In the previous encounter against Qatar in 2019, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s heroic efforts — facing 13 shots on target — had ensured a point for India. This time, the focus is on improved numbers, a more assertive approach, and resilient character on the field.

The choice of starting XI will be a key decision for Stimac, with attention on players like Apuia and Suresh Wangjam, who will need to thwart the threats posed by Hassan Al-Haydos, Qatar’s captain. Anirudh Thapa may play a crucial role in keeping a close eye on Hassan, who has already proven his goal-scoring abilities.

India face a challenging task in containing Qatar’s formidable duo of Almoez Ali and Akram Afif, skilled wingers who will test the defensive prowess of Nikhil Poojary and Akash Mishra. There will also be expectations of Manvir Singh, who hit the winner in Kuwait City. There will not be many opportunities against a strong Qatari side and India must make every chance count.

Despite the daunting task facing his team, Stimac expressed confidence in his team’s ability to cause an upset. “We have analysed Qatar from every angle and position and know very well what they are capable of in terms of speed and strength. Their defensive and offensive positions are immaculate, which they demonstrated against Afghanistan by scoring eight goals.

“They could well have scored eight more. It is going to be very difficult and I just want the boys to enjoy their game. The first and bigger part was accomplished by winning against Kuwait. Now, I want the boys not to take any pressure and show their quality against Qatar,” Stimac told AIFF Media.

India have faced Qatar five times since 1996 and their lone triumph came in 2011. The 0-0 draw in 2019 of course is still fresh in memory. Qatar lead 3-1 on head-to-head record. As India gear up for this clash, the stage is set for an intense battle and an opportunity to rewrite history.

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