Snehasis Mukherjee at the Kalinga Stadium, Bhubaneshwar
India’s FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign tasted its first defeat, as they went down 3-0 to Qatar at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneshwar. However, the scoreline does not adequately reflect the fight shown by the Blue Tigers, especially in the first half after conceding an early goal.
The hype around this match was unreal as India came into it after defeating Kuwait 1-0 away from home in their opening game. Qatar, the Asian champions currently ranked 61st in the world, had enjoyed a thumping 8-1 win over Afghanistan. So, it was always going to be an uphill task for Igor Stimac and his men in front of the passionate home crowd.
Arsene Wenger, former Arsenal manager and now FIFA’s Chief of Global Football Development, met with each player from both teams just before the kick-off. Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik along with AIFF President, Kalyan Chaubey, also graced the occasion.
Qatar were on the ball from the start. In the second minute, an attack from the left flank almost gave palpitations to the Indian fans, but, Akram Afif failed to connect cleanly in front of the goal. In the very next minute, another dangerous cross came into India’s box but Rahul Bheke was well alert to clear it. But Qatar’s pressing was just too hot to handle for India’s defenders. In the fourth minute, Mustafa Meshaal opened the scoring for the away side. It was a lovely delivery from Tameem Mansour Alabdulla from a corner, which eventually ended up in the back of the net after multiple deflections and ricochets.
In the 16th minute, Sandesh Jhingan received a yellow card for a challenge on Meshaal. But, he then made an exceptional block in the 20th minute and prevented Carlos Quieroz’s side from making it 2-0. After that, Qatar continued to attack more and more, but Jhingan, Amrinder Singh in goal, and Bheke came up with some solid blocks to prevent more damage.
In the 35th minute, India had their best chance to scoring, thanks to outstanding build-up play between Anirudh Thapa, Suresh Wangjam, and Udanta Singh. But, Apuia skied the chance well over the bar. In the remaining 10 minutes, the home team came up with two more excellent chances but poor finishing cost them once again. Thapa, when put through, couldn’t even force a save from the keeper.
The Qataris did exactly the same when they came out in the second half. They did not let India settle down and in the 47th minute, Almoez Ali scored to make it 2-0 for the visitors. Amrinder fumbled while collecting a low shot from Afif and Almoez scored with a simple tap-in. After 60 minutes, Abdul Sahal Samad was introduced as a substitute for Thapa. And he soon missed a golden opportunity to score when he shot past the far post after a beautifully floated ball from Suresh. In the 86th minute, Yusuf scored the third goal to put a gloss on the visitors’ performance.
But on the whole, Stimac would have been delighted to see the massive support from the 11,389 who attended, as well as the energy his team showed for much of the game. Despite the defeat, the continuous chants of ‘Vande Mataram’ and ‘Maa tujhe saalam’ should motivate these players to do even better in the upcoming games.