Qatar vs India: Who can become India’s No. 9 after Sunil Chhetri’s retirement, in FIFA World Cup 2026 qualifiers?

With Sunil Chhetri, India’s highest goal scorer, donning the national colours for the last time, head coach Igor Stimac announced the squad for the next match against Qatar, with four forwards. 

Published : Jun 10, 2024 14:03 IST , Chennai  - 5 MINS READ

From top left: Manvir Singh, David Lalhlansanga, Vikram Partap Singh and Rahim Ali.
From top left: Manvir Singh, David Lalhlansanga, Vikram Partap Singh and Rahim Ali. | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar | Murali Kumar | PTI | Focus Sports/ISL

From top left: Manvir Singh, David Lalhlansanga, Vikram Partap Singh and Rahim Ali. | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar | Murali Kumar | PTI | Focus Sports/ISL

India’s match against Kuwait was a momentous occasion, with Sunil Chhetri, India’s highest goal scorer, donning the national colours for the last time. It was a chance for the Blue Tigers to give its talismanic skipper a fitting farewell by bolstering its chances of making it to the third round of the FIFA World Cup 2026 qualifiers.  

But India failed to deliver, playing out a dour goalless draw against Kuwait at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata on June 6.  

Life, however, had to go on, as head coach Igor Stimac admitted and soon announced the squad for the next match, with four forwards – David Lalhlansanga, Manvir Singh, Rahim Ali and Vikram Partap Singh. 

But the underlying question, among fans and the members alike, remains. Who can possibly replace the gargantuan boots of Chhetri as the No. 9? 

Among the options, three have played in the Indian Super League – the top division of Indian football – while Lalhlansanga – played for Mohammedan Sporting in the I-League. 


Playing against Qatar, which defended the AFC Asian Cup in January this year, India’s sternest test will be to break the press to attack on the counter, where it initially failed in their previous clash in Bhubaneswar that ended 3-0 in Qatar’s favour. 

READ | Qatar vs India: Gurpreet Sandhu named captain after Sunil Chhetri’s retirement for FIFA World Cup 2026 qualifier

While Qatar is expected to field a second-string side, having earned qualification into the next round, head coach Marquez Lopez looked visibly upset after the draw against Afghanistan, its first since April 1979, which could see a hungrier and more desperate lot on home soil. 

An aerial advantage will thus be key, with Qatar fielding defenders over 180 cm. Among the four Indian forwards, only one comes with international experience and a frame of above six feet – Manvir. 

Manvir last played as No.9 against Syria in the AFC Asian Cup, with Chhetri deployed as a No. 10. Despite creating two chances and recovering the ball as many times, he could not force panic in the final third – a trait that India will need desperately in this do-or-die clash. 

In the wings, though, he has been menacing, both for club and country, with the maximum assists as an Indian in the ISL (7) this season and contributed to 10 goals starting along the flanks, compared to just one, while starting as a centre-forward. 

Another option would be Rahim, who was India’s No. 9 at the FIFA U-17 World Cup. The 24-year-old had six goal contributions for Chennaiyin FC last season, helping his side to the knockouts after four years. 

Rahim’s strength lies in his poaching ability to attack against the run of play and catch the opponent cold. 

However, the forward’s finishing has been inconsistent, including a miss in the previous match, where his shot, without enough force, was easily stopped by Kuwait’s goalkeeper, Sulaiman Abdulghafoor. 


Chhetri’s first goal had come on his debut as a 20-year-old, with the then-head coach Sukhwinder Singh trusting him to shoulder more responsibility. 

READ | Post Chhetri retirement, Stimac names India squad for FIFA World Cup qualifier against Qatar

With Vikram and Lalhlansanga, Stimac might have to walk the same path, with both 22-year-olds having breakthrough seasons in their respective leagues. 

Lalhlansanga scored 32 goals in all competitions for Mohammedan SC, winning the Golden Boot in the Calcutta Football League and the Durand Cup, also helping his side win the I-League. 

On the other hand, Vikram had 14 goal contributions (nine goals, five assists) for Mumbai City FC and helped his side win the Indian Super League Championship against Mohun Bagan Super Giant. He was also the recipient of the Emerging Player of the Year Award. 

While Vikram has primarily played as a wide midfielder, Lalhlansanga’s main position has been centre-forward – one that will face the biggest test if he makes his international debut against Qatar. 


Chhetri primarily played as the head of India’s 4-2-3-1 formation, which has been Stimac’s most frequently used shape. 

In his absence, and with Ashique Kuriniyan – Stimac’s trusted winger out with injury – India could move to a denser mid-block, like the 4-4-1-1 in the previous game or a wider 4-4-2 formation, which saw it flourish under Stephen Constantine. 

In a 4-4-1-1, Rahim would be the better choice in front, with Manvir on his right, while a wider formation might see Manvir and Vikram as the two strikers upfront. Lallianzuala Chhangte is expected to play on either flank with Brandon Fernandes or Sahal Abdul Samad, like in the previous game. 

READ | Chhetri, Tendulkar and the roulette of fairytale farewells

However, football’s penchant for radical variations leaves the door open for a conventional 4-3-3, which might have the front engine comprise the core of Mumbai City, with Chhangte and Vikram on either flank and Manvir replacing Jorge Pereyra Diaz in the centre. 

Without international experience and odds stacked against India, it is unlikely that Lalhlansanga will make the starting XI, but he could have a chance to shine as a substitute. 

India has had a forgettable history in Qatar, losing all six group-stage games over two editions of the AFC Asian Cup and has yet to beat the side, with a draw and three losses. 

The last time it won in Qatar was against Bangladesh, with both goals coming off Chhetri at the Jassin Bin Hamad Stadium. 

On June 11, the same venue – with India needing at least a draw to remain in the race for the FIFA World Cup 2026 and the AFC Asian Cup – might decide whether the Blue Tigers have a worthy heir to take over the baton. 

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