Injury-stricken India looks to beat the odds against Qatar in FIFA World Cup 2026 qualifier

Three of India’s first-team regulars, Anwar Ali, Jeakson Singh and Ashique Kuruniyan are ruled out while Manvir Singh and Brandon Fernandes remain doubtful.

Published : Nov 20, 2023 21:26 IST , BHUBANESWAR - 4 MINS READ

Indian football team players are seen in their training session on the eve of the FIFA qualifier match against Qatar at Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar.
Indian football team players are seen in their training session on the eve of the FIFA qualifier match against Qatar at Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar. | Photo Credit: BISWARANJAN ROUT/The Hindu

Indian football team players are seen in their training session on the eve of the FIFA qualifier match against Qatar at Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar. | Photo Credit: BISWARANJAN ROUT/The Hindu

When Manvir Singh struck the winner against Kuwait in their opening fixture of the second round of FIFA World Cup 2026 AFC qualifiers, ecstasy exuded from the Indian contingent, with thousands of fans celebrating with the tricolour at the Jaber al-Ahmad International Stadium in Kuwait City.


Five days after the match, at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar, India will test the waters against Asian Champion Qatar, which comes into the game after mauling Afghanistan 8-1 in their opening qualifying fixture.

India will, however, take notes from the Kuwait clash, in terms of its team combination, especially, the presence of a poacher.

For the first time this year, Stimac chose to shift from a 4-2-3-1 shape to a 4-3-3 formation, with Sunil Chhetri playing at false 9, late in the second half. That bore fruits as Lallianzuala Chhangte’s run along the left, followed by a cross was latched on by Manvir.

ALSO READ: India vs Qatar, FIFA World Cup qualifiers: Igor Stimac’s work over the years is bearing fruits now, says Rahul Bheke

While the shift favoured India, resorting to a new shape – after playing differently in the first half of the year – might leave it vulnerable and, at times, even exposed to counter-attacks.

To add to the worries, India is without its three first-team regulars – centre-back Anwar Ali (ankle injury), midfielder Jeakson Singh (shoulder injury) and winger Ashique Kuruniyan (anterior crucial ligament injury).

Manvir, too, missed training on the penultimate day of the match and is expected to sit out in the Qatar clash while Brandon Fernandes’ selection – who was out with a shoulder injury in the previous match – will be decided on gameday.

“Obviously injuries don’t help. When you lose a couple of main players, never mind their age or experience, it is much more difficult because there is a reason why he is there in the starting eleven,” India head coach Igor Stimac said.

“They’re influencing others to be better on the pitch. When you lose that, then you try to find someone who will somehow replace them. And how good we are in replacing them is something you find out only after the game.”

Qatar, on the other hand, will be bubbling with confidence after the win. But it will be cautious to not scoff at its lower-ranked opponent, which limited it to just one goal in their previous clash, despite going down to 10 men within 17 minutes.

For its head coach Carlos Queiroz, under whom the side won just thrice in 12 games so far, it will be another opportunity to further clear the air of opprobrium around his future.

The aberration of being the worst-performing host in a FIFA World Cup is history now, and Queiroz will feel the pressure to change the country’s football narrative as he did for Iran.

His influence was evident against the Afghans, but his raison d’etre, the difficult-to-penetrate lower block, has looked inexorably porous. Qatar has let in 17 goals in 10 matches, including a 0-4 thumping to his former side, Iran.

Against India, with Chhetri and Chhangte in front of Sahal Abdul Samad and Naorem Mahesh Singh, the visitor’s ability to nip attacks in the bud will be tested well.

Almoez Ali, who became Qatar’s highest goalscorer in its previous game, will be the usual suspect in the final third. The Al Duhail captain, who scored four goals against Afghanistan, is equally adroit along the flanks and can prove to be a nightmare in set-pieces, too.

ALSO READ: FIFA 2026 World Cup AFC qualifiers: Stimac confident of India’s preparation ahead of Kuwait  clash

“One clear goal in our minds is to play great football, improve our standards and get the three points. We know the Indian national team is a very different side today. But we have also grown up, and we will look for a win,” Queiroz told reporters on the eve of the match.

India’s clash against Qatar in 2019 saw its goalkeeper Gurpreet Sandhu rise to the occasion making 11 saves and holding the opponent to a goalless draw. Four years later, Stimac’s boys will look to shoulder responsibilities more evenly and with discipline.

“Hopefully I have less work (this time),” Gurpreet said with a chuckle, “Maximum points with the least work possible is a goalkeeper’s dream. I want the players in front of me to enjoy, get on the scoresheet and give us the win.”

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