A sold-out Kalinga Stadium awaits the Indian national team against defending Asian champions Qatar in their second group match of the second round of the 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifiers on Tuesday.
India will be brimming with confidence after an impressive 1-0 win in Kuwait, where India’s defensive tenacity shone through on a big occasion to give Igor Stimac the perfect start to the qualifiers.
Qatar made a statement of intent in their first match in the group as they thrashed Afghanistan 8-1 at home, their star striker Almoez Ali scoring four goals in that game.
Stimac stick or twist?
India’s Croatian head coach made a few bold calls in the win over Kuwait, none more so than benching Lalianjuala Changte, who then made a decisive impact as a substitute, assisting Manvir Singh for the winning goal, who started the game in Changte’s original position.
Apuya Ralte, who did not make the squad in the last two national camps, returned straight to the starting XI and proved a quiet presence in the midfield alongside Suresh Wangjam. Rahul Bheke came in to partner Sandesh Jhingan, the heart of India’s defence, and provided solidity as well.
So, all the calls to Steamac worked wonders. None of those players gave him a reason to switch teams again. Veke, in particular, will have redemption on his mind against Qatar, having been sent off in the 17th minute the last time these two teams played against each other, a game which Qatar won 1-0.
India are unlikely to see much of the ball in this game, so making the most of counter-attacking situations will be the key. Manveer’s pace and power should be an outlet, but whether Changte or Naurem Mahesh Singh will start on Sunil Chhetri’s other side is a question for Steamac to answer.
Sahl Abdul Samad’s place may be another point of contention, through no fault of his own. If Stimac feels the need for a slightly more defensive minded player in the midfield alongside Apuya and Suresh, Sahal could possibly make way for Anirudh Thapa to make things tougher for the Qataris.
India’s most important player
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu played the game of his life in the previous World Cup qualifier in Qatar, in a game that ended 0-0. Qatar has some of the best attacking players in Asia like Akram Afif, Hassan Al-Haydos and Akram Afif. That night in Doha, they threw everything at Gurpreet, but he returned everything.
Sleep away from the big one against Qatar
– Indian Football Team (@IndianFootball) November 19, 2023
It’s not going to be a lone wolf job for Gurpreet though. He will demand near perfection from those before him. Jhingan puts his body on the line, staying steady alongside Veke, Akash Mishra and Nikhil Pujari to compete fiercely in their one-on-one battle. But coming up against a side of Qatari descent, there’s no doubting the chances they’ll create, their shots on goal. A man who usually relishes big occasions, this is another one for Gurpreet.
If he and his defense can close that backdoor with open exchanges and keep them in the game long enough, Qatar will look to force things a bit more and potentially open up some space for India in an attacking sense. The game-plan is likely to be a counter-attacker, and it relies on the big No. 1’s clean sheet remaining intact for as long as he can manage it.
India have already shown once in 2023 that they can go toe-to-toe against good Asian sides, and a 2-2 draw against Iraq in September should give them some confidence. But when the Asian champions come to town, the nature of the beast becomes stronger. Winning six points from the first six available may be beyond some of Stimac’s wildest dreams, but India stand on the brink of a golden opportunity. Can they grab it?