Chhetri-less India enter testing transition phase with crucial WC qualifier against Qatar

NewsDrum Desk
New Update

Doha, Jun 10 (PTI) The influential Sunil Chhetri's absence will be a difficult void to fill as the Indian football team enters a testing transition phase with a crucial FIFA World Cup qualifying match against heavyweights Qatar here on Tuesday.

The 39-year-old Chhetri called time on his glorious international career by playing in last week's fixture against Kuwait in Kolkata, which ended in a goal-less draw as the team failed to give him a fitting farewell.

Chhetri ended with 94 goals in 151 matches, having led the country with aplomb for more than a decade.

The Indian team will be led by the 32-year-old first-choice goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who has so far appeared in 72 internationals and is the most experienced player in the 23-member squad after Chhetri's retirement.

An acid test awaits India as they run into two-time Asian champions Qatar at the Jassim bin Hamad Stadium, knowing well that a defeat will end their campaign and dash all hopes of securing a maiden entry into the third round of the World Cup Qualifiers.

India remain in the second spot with five points and a goal difference of -3. Afghanistan, who also played out a 0-0 draw with Qatar in their last outing in Hofuf, Saudi Arabia, are in third spot with a goal difference of -10, the stalemate making the job much more difficult for Igor Stimac's wards.

Qatar, who have already qualified for the third round as group-toppers, have named a largely youthful squad, with 21 out of their 29 players below the age of 24.

"We have watched the Afghanistan versus Qatar game and will work on the attacking transition, with a hope to start scoring goals from the chances we create," said Stimac on arriving here.

India had their first practice in Doha on Sunday evening and are having the official training session on Monday at the match venue.

For the Blue Tigers, a result is a must. If they lose against Qatar, they will be eliminated from the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers third round.

They will then be doing battle in the AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers third round matches for a place at the 2027 tournament in Saudi Arabia.

However, if India beat Qatar, they will be in pole position to make the World Cup Qualifiers third round and a direct spot at the Asian Cup thanks to their much-superior goal difference over Afghanistan.

If India draw against Qatar, they will qualify for the third round only if the match between Kuwait and Afghanistan, which will kick off in Kuwait City two hours after India's match, also ends in a draw.

In that scenario, India will finish second in the group with six points, the same as Afghanistan, but with a better goal difference.

Kuwait are at the bottom of the table with four points but with Qatar already through to the third round, all the other three teams remain in contention for the second and final berth from Group A.

For over a decade, one question that has dogged Indian football is, "Who, after Sunil Chhetri?" The team is yet to find a lethal striker to succeed him.

Rahim Ali struggled as a substitute in the previous match and lacked clinical finishing skills. The likes of Manvir Singh, Vikram Partap Singh and David Lalhlansanga comprise India's forward line but they are yet to make a statement upfront.

The fancied Qatar side will look to exploit wherever the India team is found wanting, making it extremely important for defenders Anwar Ali, Mehtab Singh, Nikhil Poojary and Rahul Bheke to be on their toes at all times.

In the midfield, the likes of Sahal Abdul Samad, Anirudh Thapa, Brandon Fernandes, Liston Colaco and Lallianzuala Chhangte will need to be creative with their passing and intelligent with movement off the ball.

Match starts at 9.15PM IST. PTI AH AM AH AM AM