Saturday, June 22, 2024

Manvir’s lightning strike lights up India’s World Cup Qualifiers campaign

Manvir Singh’s 75th-minute left-footed strike turned India’s start to Round 2 of the FIFA World Cup 2026 and AFC Asian Cup Saudi Arabia 2027 Joint Qualification campaign into a memorable one as they defeated hosts Kuwait by a solitary goal at the Jaber Al-Ahmad International Stadium, Kuwait City, on Thursday.

It was a time of quiet and of waiting till Manvir Singh changed the very face of the game. The gigantic stadium was bathed in artificial lights but none of it could outshine Manvir in the end. What looked like a sedate contest for the majority of the 90-minute period truly became an exciting one when the lanky striker parked himself at the right place in the rival box to bang home a Lallianzuala Chhangte cross from the left with a neat and powerful left-footer to which Kuwait custodian Abdul Rahman Marzouq had no answer.

India now travel to Bhubaneswar to play their next match in the group against mighty Qatar, undoubtedly the toughest side in the four-team contest. But Thursday’s victory was a remarkable one. Beating Kuwait in their own backyard was no mean achievement. Kuwait were completely rattled and upset. They were left further embarrassed during the add-on time when substitute Faisal Alharbi was given the marching orders by the Australian referee for picking up his second yellow card, something the attacking midfielder could have easily avoided.

The goal made all the difference as India walked off the pitch with all three points in their pocket, which could well become a crucial factor in India’s endeavour to get into the next round of the World Cup campaign for the first time in history.

India’s head coach Igor Stimac should also receive a good amount of credit for this three-pointer; his decision to leave Chhangte out of the starting eleven raised a few eyebrows without getting deep into his scheme of things. Stimac waited till the 64th minute before he unleashed Chhangte against an already harassed Kuwait defence and he did the trick that the Blue Tigers were looking for. Chhangte’s fresh legs did wonder; his cross from the left was a classic one – it had the perfect angle, the ideal height and all the ingredients to leave the Kuwait defence stranded.

Only a few months ago, India and Kuwait battled it out hard twice in the SAFF Championships in Bengaluru with India emerging the victors in tie-breakers in the final. Thursday’s win was perhaps more creditable. It came on Kuwait’s home turf and within the regulation period in which India certainly had more say in the proceedings. If India didn’t create enough positive chances despite having the upper hand, the hosts were also in no position to take any credit away from India as they could hardly penetrate the Indian defence. India’s goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu had a rather peaceful day in the office; the attacks he had to negotiate with were mostly without stings.

India, on the other hand, were far more enterprising though they too failed to open the Kuwait defence too many times. Yet, in the first half, India were doing the right things on the right, with Nikhil Poojary and Manvir Singh being the chief operators. One such foray saw Poojary floating the ball inside the box in a copybook style. Skipper Sunil Chhetri took a volley that had the required punch, but not the direction. It sailed over the bar.It was perhaps the best chance India had in the match, apart from Manvir’s magical strike.

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