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Home game against Qatar group’s toughest: Stimac

By, Kolkata
Nov 17, 2023 11:50 PM IST

Proud of team which beat strongest competitor for second place, says India head coach after 1-0 win away to Kuwait

How do you savour a rare away win, that too in a World Cup qualifier? Mile high in the sky working off post-match adrenaline and hoping to get some sleep is what the India men’s football team would have said. Hours after Thursday’s 1-0 win against Kuwait in Kuwait City through Manvir Singh’s 75th minute strike, the squad flew out and to reach Ahmedabad via Dubai.

India's football coach Igor Stimac gestures a match.(AFP)
India's football coach Igor Stimac gestures a match.(AFP)

Victory makes a lot of things bearable, including a couple of red-eye flights and sleeping through the day before flying to Bhubaneswar – which means travelling through four airports in less than a day – ahead of Tuesday’s game against Asian champions Qatar in the 2026 World Cup and 2027 Asian Cup qualifying cycle. “When you are winning games, it doesn’t feel as sore. When you are losing, it starts to feel a bit heavy,” Dawid Malan had said, looking back at England’s disappointing 50-over World Cup campaign.

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The good thing is that India have no injury worries, said Igor Stimac. The India head coach said Tuesday’s game will be toughest for his team in Group A that also has Afghanistan. “We are playing at home and so need to be clever and patient. We cannot be too conservative in our approach. In the away game against Qatar, we know we will have to defend deep,” Stimac told HT over the phone from Ahmedabad on Friday.

Patience India showed a lot of against Kuwait. This is a sign of the team becoming more mature, said Stimac. “There were no stupid fouls, no silly passes, no yellow cards.” Given that Ashique Kuruniyan, Jeakson Singh and Anwar Ali were unavailable due to long-term injuries, this result made him proud and happy, he said.

“Kuwait are our strongest opponents for the second spot. To start with a win against them gives us a clear idea of what we need to do in the remaining games (to qualify for the third round).”

India have never gone beyond the second round of the World Cup qualifiers.

The plan for Thursday involved focussing on players’ height especially in the absence of Singh, Ali and Kuruniyan, said Stimac. “That is why Manvir to started. The average follower would have been right in wanting to take Manvir off around the hour-mark because though his physicality mattered, he was not doing enough with the ball. But we knew what he was capable of,” said Stimac.

“I am lucky to score in a big match like this. Really looking forward to scoring more,” Manvir Singh told aiff.com.

Often used as wing-back at his club Mohun Bagan Super Giant, Manvir Singh scored with a smart, snap left-footer after running in between two Kuwait players to meet Lallianzuala Chhangte’s assist from the left.

Chhangte was a 64th minute replacement for Mahesh Naorem. “He (Mahesh) was brilliant in defensive contribution but we thought Chhangte could give us more with the ball. For wide players, we have options. Some can play inverted and cut in to use their stronger foot. Others can deliver good crosses. Chhangte can use both feet and has been used on the left at Mumbai City FC this term,” said Stimac.

That India kept a clean sheet and won without Sunil Chhetri being among goals is a positive. That they could do it without either Anirudh Thapa or Brandon Williams, who had a minor injury, is another. Lalenmawia Ralte’s performance gives Stimac an option in a midfield position Jeakson Singh owned and where he can also play Thapa. As does Rahul Bheke slotting in as Sandesh Jhingan’s partner in central defence in Ali’s absence.

This was India’s first away win in nine games since the 2021 SAFF Championship final where they beat Nepal 3-0. One thoroughly enjoyed by the Indian diaspora which had turned up in good numbers. “We are touched by the love and appreciation we received,” said Stimac.

After Qatar, who beat Afghanistan 8-1 on Thursday, India will play Afghanistan home and away on March 21 and 26. They will host Kuwait on June 6 and complete the group league against Qatar five days later. The top two teams from each of the nine second round groups will qualify to the third round of the qualifiers and the 2027 Asian Cup finals. In the third round, teams will be divided equally into three groups of six and the top two from each will make the World Cup in USA, Canada and Mexico.

Six second-placed teams will be split into two groups of three in the fourth round with group winners also qualifying for the 2026 finals. The teams finishing second in the fourth round will play each other to end the Asian qualifying cycle in November 2025. The winners will play the inter-confederation play-offs for a World Cup that will have 48 teams where Asia has been allotted 8.5 berths.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Dhiman Sarkar is based in Kolkata with over two decades as a sports journalist. He writes mainly on football.

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