DOHA (QATAR): India displayed some resilient defending and goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu impressed as India held reigning Asian champions Qatar to a 0-0 draw at Jassim bin Hamad Stadium in Group E of the Asian Qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup China 2023 on Tuesday.
Stimac made four changes to the starting XI he fielded against Oman, with Mandar Rao Dessai, Sahal Abdul Samad and Nikhil Poojary coming in for Subhasish Bose, Brandon Fernandes and Ashique Kuruniyan. The most notable one, however, was Manvir Singh replacing Sunil Chhetri, who was too unwell to even make the bench.
The hosts began stamping their authority on the tie almost from the get go and kept the Blue Tigers under pressure with some snappy passing and clever movement off the ball. India goalkeeper and captain for the night Gurpreet Singh Sandhu was a busy man early on and had to make a few saves, including a couple from Qatari skipper Hasan Al Haydos, who looked dangerous down the left flank.
Haydos, cutting in from the left and taking his shots on from the edge of the box, continuously kept on testing the India defence and Gurpreet, but the Blue Tigers managed to ward off the danger with some last-ditch defending and good goalkeeping by the skipper.
The biggest chance in the first 25 minutes fell to Boualem Khoukhi, who found himself unmarked and at the end of a Haydos corner after it took a nick off Poojary. With half of the goal in his mercy, Qatar’s no. 16 failed to keep his header on target.
Despite rarely making any notable forward forays, the Blue Tigers, much to their credit, managed to keep Qatar’s star striker Almoez Ali quiet for the opening 45 minutes. The 23-year-old, however, showed a spark of his highly-regarded abilities in added time of the first half when he turned on a knife’s edge and got off a shot on target which seemed to be heading for the bottom corner. However, a crucial extended fist by Gurpreet diverted the ball in the final moments. The two sides went into the break with the score reading 0-0.
The second half began on a similar note to the first, with Qatar turning the screws and Gurpreet being kept on his toes. In between the relentless pressure from the hosts, however, the Blue Tigers did carve out a presentable chance after Sahal freed up Udanta to run at goal with some good work in the middle of the park. Udanta raced into the box but could only manage to scuff his shot across goal.
With India showing much more intent to go forward in the second half, another big moment came about on the 57th minute as Sahal seemed to have a free run at goal after a quick breakaway but was brought down by Assim Omer Madibo. Indian players contested that Madibo might have been the last man between Sahal and the goalkeeper, but the referee only brandished a yellow card.
Sahal kept expanding his influence as the match progressed and came close to giving the team a shock lead on the 66th minute. The 22-year-old found himself on the end of a corner at the edge of the Qatar box, but sliced his volley just off target.
As the match headed past the 70-minute mark, the frustrated home team kept pouring men forward in search of the elusive first goal but were denied time and again by a disciplined Indian defence, particularly Sandesh Jhingan and Adil Khan, a little shred of luck and a seemingly unbeatable Gurpreet.
Around the 80th minute, India carved out a big chance of their own. Udanta battled hard to keep the ball on the right flank and after a clever bit of interplay with Anirudh Thapa, made space for a curler from just outside the box. His effort had Qatar custodian Saad Al Sheeb scampering but went inches wide.
Five minutes later, Gurpreet continued his fine performance at the other end after parrying out a dangerous long ranger. The ball fell kindly for Yusuf Abdurisag, who hit the crossbar, but the offside flag was up anyways.
The Indian team, which has been prone to conceding late goals of late, held on to earn the crucial point and most importantly to give Indian football fans one of the most memorable nights in recent memory.
INDIA: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu (Captain); Rahul Bheke, Sandesh Jhingan, Adil Khan, Mandar Rao Desai; Udanta Singh, Rowllin Borges, Anirudh Thapa (Narender Gahlot – 90+2), Nikhil Poojary (Brandon Fernandes – 68th), Abdul Sahal (Manvir Singh – 75th), Manvir Singh.