India has been placed in Group A, along with Asian champion Qatar, Kuwait and the winner between Afghanistan and Mongolia, after the AFC second round of the 2026 FIFA World Cup qualification, which took place at the AFC House in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
What does the draw mean for the Blue Tigers?
For Igor Stimac’s Indian team, it might be too soon to think about playing in the World Cup in 2026. But, the Blue Tigers have a fairly strong chance of making it to the third round of qualification, with the teams they have in the group.
India is the second-highest (99) ranked team in the group, after Qatar (59). The other teams India will face are Kuwait (137) and the winner between Afghanistan (157) and Mongolia (183).
If the current form is taken into consideration, the first set of matches (November 16 and November 21) could not have come at a better time for Blue Tigers. High on confidence after winning the Intercontinental Cup and the SAFF Championships, Stimac’s men will look to start the qualifying campaign on a strong note.
However, confidence will not be enough because the Indians start their campaign against tricky customers in Kuwait away from home and then go on to play defending Asian champion Qatar at home.
Kuwait- familiar but tricky opponents
India will play Kuwait in its first qualifier on November 16. Both teams have the advantage of gauging the strengths and weaknesses of their opponent because of their recent clashes together.
Kuwait is 38 places below India but the Al-Azraqs have shown that rankings hardly matter when they are playing the Blue Tigers.
Kuwait, which was invited to compete at the 2023 SAFF Championships, faced India twice - once in the group stages and once in the final. While India beat Kuwait in the final, to clinch its ninth SAFF title, it was on penalties. During the regulation time, India mostly found it difficult to break down Rui Bento’s men, with the match finishing 1-1. The group stage match both teams played also finished in a 1-1 draw.
So effectively, India has not beaten Kuwait in regulation time - something Igor Stimac will look to change in the qualifiers.
That being said, there was a time when Kuwait thrashed India 9-1 in a friendly match in 2010. From that position to playing out two draws - the Indian team has shown positive signs.
Will the underdog mentality come into play against Qatar?
When India plays its second qualifying match against Qatar on November 21, the Blue Tigers will undoubtedly be the underdogs in that match. Not only is Qatar 40 places above India in rankings, but the Maroons are also better everywhere in all departments in terms of individual quality on paper. They also have the experience of playing their first-ever World Cup late last year.
The only factor that would be working to India’s advantage is that matches are not won on paper. In recent times, a certain dogged attitude to gnaw results has been working in India’s favour and that is exactly what Stimac will be asking his team to do.
In fact, the last time when both teams faced each other was in a World Cup qualifying match in 2021, where the Blue Tigers lost by a narrow 1-0 margin, playing with 10-men after Rahul Bheke was sent off in the 17th minute. In the match before that, India played out a gutsy goalless draw with Qatar in 2019.
The balance is certainly tipping in Qatar’s favour, but the current crop of players in the Indian team can certainly take the fight to the Arab nation on their day.
Complacency can hurt India against Afghanistan/Mongolia
It remains to be seen which teams between Afghanistan and Mongolia, India will face in Group A of the World Cup qualifiers.
At the outset, a match against either Afghanistan or Mongolia seems like an easy day in the office for the high-flying Blue Tigers. However, just as India can cause an upset against Qatar being the underdog, Afghanistan and Mongolia can do the same against India, which will start as the favourites.
India’s matches against Afghanistan/Mongolia are scheduled to be held in March 2024. So, it is quite likely that there are changes in the squad or at the managerial level. A clearer idea about the clash can be expected closer to the clash.
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