Tuesday, July 16, 2024

2026 World Cup qualifiers: Upbeat India face a stern test against mighty Qatar at home

Unbeaten at home this year, the Indian senior men’s national team takes on Asian champions Qatar in their biggest test in their second match of the Preliminary Joint Qualification Round 2 for FIFA World Cup 2026 and AFC Asian Cup 2027 here on Tuesday.

Igor Stimac’s men were off to a flying start four days ago with three points against Kuwait in Group A, India will now count on home support in a very familiar location to tackle the test from the 61-ranked Qatari side at the Kalinga Stadium here.

Bhubaneswar’s Kalinga Stadium has been quite lucky for the Blue Tigers. The Intercontinental Cup triumph in June, which was India’s first international tournament in the Odisha capital, has ignited a footballing fire in an already sports-crazy city. The enthusiasm is reflected in the fact that the match is already sold out.

“It’s a game, where there is nothing to lose for us but a lot to win for. So let’s go for it all out,” said Stimac at the pre-match press conference.

“We cannot control the external factors. We can only control our performances at the individual level and as a team. The only thing for us to do is to give our best for 90 minutes when the first whistle sounds,” he was quoted as saying by aiff.com.

Accompanying the Croatian in the press conference was goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who delivered one of the performances of his life, making 11 saves as India had held Qatar goalless in their own den in the World Cup Qualifiers in 2019.

“Hopefully I have less work (this time),” Sandhu chuckled. “Maximum points with the least work possible is a goalkeeper’s dream. I want the players in front of me to enjoy, get on the scoresheet and give us the win.”

Qatar’s strength does not need much explanation. After hosting the blockbuster World Cup 12 months ago, the Maroons have had a good year so far under a highly experienced head coach like Carlos Queiroz, who has managed the likes of Iran, Portugal, South Africa, Colombia, Egypt and Real Madrid at the club level.

While their recent form was a bit concerning, with two draws and two losses (including 0-4 to Iran) in four friendlies since September, Qatar flexed their muscles in the 8-1 drubbing of Afghanistan to start the Asian Qualifiers with a bang in Al-Rayyan. Four of those goals came from the boots of their record top-scorer Almoez Ali, who was the MVP at the 2019 Asian Cup.

While this is the senior Qatar team’s first visit to India, coach Queiroz is here for the second time. He was the Iran coach when they won 3-0 in Bengaluru in the World Cup Qualifiers in 2015.

Stimac spoke about the importance of being consistent when competing at a tournament as big as the World Cup Qualifiers, which was something India lacked last time out. Following that draw with Qatar, India were held 1-1 by both Bangladesh and Afghanistan, which ultimately hampered the Blue Tiger’s bid to progress to Round 3.

However, Stimac reiterated that this year has been the most consistent one for India under his tenure.

“When you play high-level games consecutively without losing, facing Kyrgyzstan, Kuwait three times, Lebanon twice, Iraq and you don’t lose matches and keep clean sheets, it’s quite evident that you are consistent,” he said.

“I said to our players immediately after the Kuwait game in the dressing room that the best thing is to forget this game immediately. Save your energy from celebrating, being over-confident and getting into euphoria. No, forget it. Let’s get preparing for the Qatar game. That’s the only way forward,” added Stimac.



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