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Referee’s howler costs India in 1-2 defeat to Qatar

ByDhiman Sarkar, Kolkata
Jun 12, 2024 12:03 AM IST

India seemed on course to a historic third round spot in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers till the shocking 73rd minute decision in Doha

Shocking inability of South Korean match officials to spot that all of the ball had gone out fetched Qatar an equaliser that shouldn’t have been before Ahmed Alrawi struck a dagger through India. Till the 73rd minute, it looked like India would be the second team to qualify from Group A. Lallianzuala Chhangte had given India the lead in the 37th minute and put them on course for a rare away win in this FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

India's Mehtab Singh looks dejected after the match(REUTERS)

Disaster struck then but it wasn’t India’s fault. Solid all night like the rest of the team while defending, Jeakson Singh conceded a free-kick but the ball had gone out by the time Alhashmi Mohialdin pulled it back for Youssef Aymen to stab it home. India protested but with no VAR, the goal stood. Alrawi’s curler from range came minutes before Kuwait struck against Afghanistan meaning India would need a win now. Kuwait joined Qatar, who won 2-1 on the night, in the third round after India ended on five points with Afghanistan. It is the hope that kills you.

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Against Qatar you usually suffer. India knew that. Sure in the air, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s reflex save denied Alhashmi Mohialdin and in successive games the India goalie, now captain too, produced a solid show. In the 12th minute, Alrawi’s prompt was saved by Mehtab Singh even though the India central defender was off balance.

In 2019, Sandhu needed to stand tall, literally and metaphorically, making 11 saves to keep the scoreline 0-0. When the teams met again in Doha in 2021, the world and the idea of home-and-away World Cup qualifiers ripped apart by Covid-19, Sandhu made nine saves as India, after playing for 75 minutes with 10 following Rahul Bheke’s red card, lost 0-1.

Before Tuesday, that was the only goal India had conceded in the lair of the two-time Asian champions. Exactly the kind of good news that can get a team to do the unexpected. That Qatar, who are 87 slots above India in FIFA rankings, were fielding a young side was another. Only three players had 20 caps or more, the total games for the starting 11 a little more than Sandhu’s 73.

The sobering bit came in the lack of fluency in the final third. India hadn’t scored from open play since November 16, 2023. And only once in six games thereafter, a Sunil Chhetri penalty against Afghanistan in Guwahati last March. In 2023, India scored 21 goals in 16 games. Chhetri had scored nine of them. That has been the nature of India’s dependence on him.

After Chhetri, Chhangte and Naorem Mahesh had the most goals last year, three each. For two successive seasons, Chhangte has been able to produce numbers impressive enough to suggest that he could be a worthy successor to Chhetri. ISL teams know of his ability to make darting runs into the area; Brandon Fernandes and Jay Gupta would have had nightmares given how Chhangte ripped FC Goa in the first leg of this season’s semi-final doing just that.

In Doha, Gupta and Fernandes combined to find Chhangte who was deployed centrally. Gupta’s throw-in found Fernandes who saw space where a run could be made to meet the ball. With a defender on his shoulder, Chhangte stabbed home. The ball had pinged off his legs minutes earlier after Manvir Singh had stolen possession and his shot had ricocheted off goalie Shehab Ellethy, but this time Chhangte was not to be denied. The goal came during a spell of India’s domination during which Rahim Ali’s pass skidded across the face of goal.

Stimac had spoken about the Kuwait-Afghanistan match starting two hours after India-Qatar. Tuesday was exactly a fortnight from the 42nd anniversary of the “Disgrace of Gijon” when West Germany and Austria colluded to eliminate Algeria from the 1982 World Cup. To think that after all these years, and when last round games starting simultaneously in leagues and international competitions is the norm, they would play two hours after India-Qatar began was strange. Or “surprised” as Stimac said at Monday’s pre-match press conference.

Both matches starting at the same time could have felt like India making a point before kick-off. For most of the night at Jassim bin Hamad Stadium, it looked like India would get three. A campaign that had seen India win an away World Cup qualifier after over 20 years nearly had two. Instead, the end would have felt like the late heartbreak against Bahrain in the 2019 Asian Cup finals. Or worse, because that night India were not robbed.

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