Qatar vs India: Blue Tigers aim to scale a mountain in desert

Doha, June 11 (UNI) The last match of the FIFA World Cup 2026 and AFC Asian Cup 2027 Preliminary Joint Qualifiers Round 2 is a make-or-break encounter for India, who face Asian champions Qatar away from home, on Tuesday, with a target in mind that can change the course of Indian football history.

Never before in the times gone by could India make the Round 3 of the World Cup qualifiers. Their hopes are still alive this time, but converting them into reality could be no less complicated than a quick solution to the Rubik’s Cube.

India have had a lukewarm qualification campaign for the World Cup thus far, with a 1-0 victory away in Kuwait giving them a lot of hope, before draws against Afghanistan (0-0 away) and Kuwait (0-0 at home), and defeats against Qatar (0-3 at home) and Afghanistan (1-2 at home) left them with a bit of a mountain to climb.

While they are still second in Group A with five points from as many matches, they must now ensure a result against the reigning champions of the AFC Asian Cup 2023, and hope for a favourable scoreline in the match between Kuwait and Afghanistan, later in the day.

If they get a draw against their hosts, the Blue Tigers will hope for the same in the game between Kuwait and Afghanistan. The equation will be simpler for India if they defeat Qatar, however, though the task of achieving that feat is anything but elementary.

India head coach Igor Stimac is banking on the mentality that he has cultivated in his players, to get them through in the game against Qatar.

He said, “Over the last five years, we have created hope within the team, which was never there before. I am proud of the boys, of how confident they are when they take the pitch.

“I’ve told them that the only thing they need to do is enjoy the game, be proud of their country, and take the opportunities that will make the 1.4 billion people back home happy,” he said. “It’s all about the 90 minutes for us tomorrow, and we are prepared to die on the pitch, if required.”

India midfielder Brandon Fernandes echoed his gaffer’s words, stressing on the importance of hard work to gain the desired results.

“We know how important this game is for us, so every player will fight for the nation. We are here to represent the country, and we will go out there as a team and give it our best shot,” he said. “It’s 11-vs-11 on Tuesday, and anything is possible in football. We have to put in the hard yards, and if we do it, we could get something out of it in the end.”

There is room to hope, however. Qatar, who have already secured the top spot in Group A with 13 points from five matches, have named a young squad. Hassan Al-Haydos, who retired from international football in March, and forward Akram Afif do not figure in it.

Afghanistan’s stalemate against the Maroons will certainly inspire the Indians to fight against their hosts on June 11, though the Blue Tigers have a muse of their own – a goalless draw against their hosts in the same stage of the World Cup Qualifiers back in 2019 sans Sunil Chhetri.

For India, this match will mark the beginning of a new era, one where Chhetri will not be part of their plans. The former Blue Tigers talismanic striker and captain called it a day on his 19-year-long international career after the World Cup Qualifier against Kuwait in Kolkata last week.

Stimac, however, averted much talk about the former India captain, choosing to focus on the team, rather than an individual.

“We are not thinking about it (Chhetri’s absence). We’ve played several games over the last five years without him, and we have shown that we can play in a composed manner. We’ve got other leaders in the side, who now need to step up,” he said.

“Of course Sunil has some great qualities – his personality, leadership skills, football quality, but I am not going to go back to it. This is about the team, not about any individual,” he said.

The biggest question on everyone’s mind is, who will replace the iconic number 11?

Igor Stimac had jokingly hinted at a possible solution to the problem on the eve of the Kuwait game, when asked of the same. While he had answered that question with a counter question of his own – “Who says you have to play with a striker?” – it remains to be seen how the Blue Tigers approach this equation.

The match between Qatar and India will kick off at 9.15 pm IST at the Jassim bin Hamad Stadium in Doha and will be streamed live on FanCode in India.

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