The last time India grabbed a point from Qatar, the Gulf country created as many as 27 chances, the Indian defenders had to make 36 tackles and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu made a stunning 11 saves as India held the Asian champions to a goalless draw.
It was four years ago, in the second round of World Cup and Asian Cup joint qualifiers. Much has happened since that game in Doha. A 10-man India lost their ‘home’ tie which had Doha as a centralised venue due to Covid restrictions, and the not-so-small matter of Qatar having hosted and played in a World Cup.
As the two teams meet again at the same stage of the qualifiers, this time in Bhubaneswar on Tuesday, a lot has changed.
India too have gone from strength to strength under coach Igor Stimac, with the 1-0 win away at Kuwait last week a testimony to it. But it’s nothing compared to the spur in growth Qatar have seen, especially since successfully hosting the World Cup.
So when India host Qatar on Tuesday in their second match of the FIFA World Cup 2026 and AFC Asian Cup 2027 Preliminary Joint Qualification Round 2, it may seem like a battle of unequals but the hosts will go into the game with a belief that they can continue to punch above their weight.
Before harbouring hopes of an upset victory though, India must figure out how to get a shot at the Qatar goal. In both their previous games, the Blue Tigers haven’t managed a single shot on target. Indeed, they defended resolutely and the stats speak for themselves, but the game on Tuesday is much more than a qualifier — it’s more about how India stand against Asian heavyweights, keeping in mind the all-important AFC Asian Cup in January next year.
India have already shown a glimpse that they can go toe-to-toe against the better Asian sides, and their 2-2 draw against Iraq in September is a testament to that. The fact they won three trophies in 2023 – the Tri-Nations Series, Intercontinental Cup and the SAFF Championship – simply shows the steady improvement India have made. The youngsters especially. The under-23 men’s side reaching the round of 16 at the Asian Games after 13 years in arduous circumstances wasn’t seen as a one-off.
Unbeaten at home
They will also take courage from the fact that they haven’t lost a single game at home this year.
“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,” Stimac said ahead of the Qatar match.
Nothing however would give them more confidence than their 1-0 victory over Kuwait in the first match of these qualifiers last week, courtesy of a brilliant goal by striker Manvir Singh. While India did beat Kuwait at home, beating them on their own turf would’ve been unthinkable even five years ago. It may have been their first World Cup qualifying win on foreign soil for the first time in 22 years but Stimac wants them to forget that victory.
The Croatian believes, and one would tend to agree with him, that a positive result against Qatar is the only way forward. “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 overconfident, and getting into euphoria. No, forget it. Let’s get preparing for the Qatar game. That’s the only way forward,” said Stimac.
Qatar flexed their muscles in the 8-1 drubbing of Afghanistan to start the Asian Qualifiers in some style. Four of those goals came from the boots of their record top-scorer Almoez Ali, who was the MVP at the 2019 Asian Cup, and the Indian defence marshalled by Sandesh Jhingan is bound to have a busy time in keeping him silent.
India would want to look at the games before the Afghanistan match though. Qatar were drubbed 4-0 by Iran and held 1-1 by Russia in their two friendlies since September. But coached by the experienced Carlos Queiroz, who has managed the likes of Iran, Portugal, and a club like Real Madrid, they will want to continue their momentum from the Afghanistan match. They, too, would be looking at these matches as a preparation for their home Asian Cup and given how poor their World Cup campaign went (they couldn’t get a point), they would look at the January tournament as some sort of redemption.
Stimac made a brave call in the Kuwait game, benching the pacy Lallianzuala Chhangte, who ironically came in and set up the goal for Manvir, the player who started in his place. With Manvir scoring, it’ll be difficult for Stimac to bench him against Qatar.
While he went for an attacking lineup against Kuwait, he could go for a more defensive approach on Tuesday which could mean the talismanic playmaker Sahal Abdul Samad might have to make way for Anirudh Thapa. That would be unfortunate since Sahal has been electrifying in the Indian jersey and the majority of their attacks have come through him. Stimac however said on the eve of the match that he’s going to go all 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,” he said. “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.”