India’s World Cup hopes hit as they draw a blank against Afghanistan

Scenes from India vs Afghanistan at the Damac Stadium (Image: AIFF)

India’s hopes of making it to the third round of Asian World Cup qualifying for the 2026 World Cup were dealt a severe blow when they were held to a 0-0 draw by Afghanistan at the Damac Stadium in Abha in Saudi Arabia. In qualifying for the Asian Cup two years ago, India had needed a last-gasp goal from Sahal Abdul Samad to edge out Afghanistan 2-1. Here, at a neutral venue in what was supposedly a ‘home’ game for the Afghans, Sahal was missing with an injured hamstring, and India’s huff and puff resulted in nothing more than a point. The sense of a great opportunity lost was compounded by the news that Kuwait, their rivals for qualification, had been thrashed 3-0 by Qatar, the Asian champions.

Too many of India’s big names were off the pace or out of form, and Afghanistan, a sporadic threat on the break, held on with a measure of comfort. Liston Colaco and Brandon Fernandes, both second-half substitutes, injected some urgency and menace to the proceedings. But the chances created went abegging.

In the 58th minute, Akash Mishra escaped his marker down the left and delivered a beautiful arcing cross. Vikram Partap Singh, who had been chosen to lead the line, rose high, but with the goal at his mercy, his header went well wide. Soon after, Igor Stimac, the increasingly frustrated India coach, hooked both players, bringing on Fernandes and Subhasish Bose. Colaco was part of the next tranche of replacements, along with Naorem Mahesh and Deepak Tangri.

Image: AIFF

India showed more endeavour in the second half, but the lack of a cutting edge in the final third was painfully apparent. Nikhil Poojary, Manvir Singh and Colaco delivered telling balls into the box, only to find no one there to take advantage. On one occasion, Sunil Chhetri overran the pass. When Subhasish headed wide while free in the box from a Fernandes corner, it pretty much summed up a wasteful night. In the five minutes of added-on time, another cross from Colaco from the right found its way to Mahesh. He couldn’t get the ball under control and instead attempted a sprawling dive that the referee rightly ignored.

India were horribly disjointed in the first half, looking very much like a team that hadn’t scored in their previous four internationals since the famous win in Kuwait City. They had an almighty let-off in the 12th minute when Rahmat Akbari’s long-range strike came back off the crossbar. Afghanistan, despite missing so many first-teamers – still protesting against the authorities – managed some decent passing patterns, but were also otherwise not much of a threat.

For India, Poojary made some impressive forays from right-back, but there was no one to capitalise on a couple of pinpoint crosses. On more than one occasion, India had decent passages of possession, but the final ball or the finish was sorely lacking. Jeakson Singh released Vikram with a delightful through ball, but his attempt to control the ball in the box went out for a goal-kick.

Manvir, who scored that goal in Kuwait, looked woefully off colour when in space on a couple of occasions, and Chhetri was anonymous. On the stroke of half-time, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu punched away a swerving free-kick from Jabar Sharza, as Afghanistan went in to the change rooms with plenty to be cheerful about. Their mood would only get better as the night wore on and India fluffed their lines.

Image: AIFF

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