World Cup qualifiers: Nothing to lose, Igor Stimac’s India ready ‘to go for it’ against Qatar


India's football coach Igor Stimac (L) gestures during the men's round of 16 football match between India and Saudi Arabia in the 2022 Asian Games at the Huanglong Sports Centre Stadium in Hangzhou in China's eastern Zhejiang province on September 28, 2023.

Igor Stimac, head coach of India’s national football team, was in a relaxed mood on the eve of the Group A match of the 2026 World Cup and 2027 Asian Cup Qualifier against Qatar scheduled to be held at the Kalinga Stadium here on Tuesday.

“This is a match where we have nothing to lose and a hell of a lot to gain. Obviously, we will go for it,” he said at the pre-match news conference on Monday.

This was after rival coach and journeyman Carlos Queiroz, during his interaction with the media, heaped praise on India’s improvement in the last four years under Stimac. “Now India play as a team. Earlier, they had two to three good players,” Queiroz said.

The former Manchester United and Real Madrid coach had an experience of what India used to be during a World Cup qualifier in September 2015 in Bangalore. Back then he managed Iran which had easily brushed aside the Indian challenge with a convincing 3-0 victory.

There is no doubt India have improved under Stimac. Between March and July this year, India won three titles in four months. Yes, there were some setbacks in the King’s Cup and Merdeka Cup but the rare away win against Kuwait has once again made many take notice of the Sunil Chhetri-led team. Queiroz is one of them. “Continuing with the same coach for four years is a reason,” the Portuguese reasoned.

Stimac got a two-year extension last month.

Realistically, India have hardly any chance against Qatar, ranked 61 in the world, while the Indians are world No. 102. They are the reigning Asian Cup champions and coming from an 8-1 rout of Afghanistan last week. Four of those goals came from the boots of their record top-scorer Almoez Ali, who was the MVP at the 2019 Asian Cup.

But before the goal glut in Doha, Qatar’s form under Queiroz was a bit concerning, with two draws and two losses (including 0-4 to Iran) in four friendlies since September.

As Stimac himself said, “Football can throw up amazing opportunities.” He was talking about that September 9 night in Doha in 2019 when a Chhetri-less India held Qatar to a goalless draw.

One of the heroes of that match — also a World Cup qualifier — was goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu who had made 11 saves. “Hopefully I have less work this time,” Sandhu said. “But that match was in 2019. I am not dwelling on that.”

Against Kuwait, India played one of their best matches in recent times with the likes of Chhetri, Manvir Singh and Sahal Abdul Samad running the hosts ragged.

The bad news coming from the India camp was that Manvir, who scored the all-important goal against Kuwait, missed the training session on Monday evening.

Even before the qualifiers got underway, key players like Anwar Ali, Ashique Kuruniyan and Jeakson Singh were ruled out. Manvir injury will be the latest blow.

Something similar had happened in 2019.

After the Qatar draw, India were on a high and expecting full points from the games against Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Injuries to key players like defender Sandesh Jhingan.

If Manvir fails to make the cut, Udanta Singh may get a start. Stimac may also bring in Anirudh Thapa in place of Suresh Singh Wangjam. Brandon Fernandes, who missed the Kuwait match due to injury, has recovered. “We will take a call later,” Stimac said at the news conference.

Tuesday’s match will have legendary coach Arsene Wenger in attendance.

The chief of Fifa’s global football development reached Bhubaneswar on Monday to inaugurate the Fifa-AIFF academy.

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