Four days ago, Sunil Chhetri left on his terms. On Tuesday, it could be Igor Stimac’s turn to leave, after putting his head on the block. But more importantly, India’s game against Qatar presents the last opportunity for it to make the third round of the World Cup qualifiers.

At the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium in Doha, against an under-strength host nation, it’s all-or-nothing for the Blue Tigers.

India has only two scenarios left to ensure qualification: a win against Qatar or if both the remaining matches in Group A end as draws.

File Photo: India’s head coach Igor Stimac could step down if his side loses against Qatar.

File Photo: India’s head coach Igor Stimac could step down if his side loses against Qatar.
| Photo Credit:


File Photo: India’s head coach Igor Stimac could step down if his side loses against Qatar.
| Photo Credit:

“We are still alive,” said the Indian team head coach after the listless stalemate against Kuwait. “But we need to believe in our team and our abilities. In five days time, we might be seeing an India U-23 team against a Qatar U-23 team. I expect a lot from this game.”

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But India will have an upper hand in terms of experience at the international level. The reigning Asian Cup champion, Qatar, is missing a host of first-team regulars, including the skipper Akram Afif, Almoez Ali, Hassan Al-Haydos, Lucas Mendes, Pedro Miguel, Boualem Khoukhi, Bassam Al-Rawi, Al-Mahdi Ali Mukhtar and Abdul Aziz Hatem. The highest-capped player in this squad is the goalkeeper Saad Al-Sheeb with 88 appearances.

While India has six players with single-digit appearances in the squad, Tintin Marquez handed out sixteen maiden call-ups for what are effectively dead rubbers for Qatar, which secured its qualification in March.

Seven players made their debuts in Saudi Arabia last week, where they held Afghanistan to a goalless draw. A few more debuts can be expected against India with forward Yousef Abdurisag and midfielder Ahmed Fatehi, two experienced players in this group, earning suspensions.

For India, the question of ‘who after Sunil Chhetri?’ is finally here. After the former skipper and leading no. 9’s retirement, the match presents an ideal opportunity for many candidates to step up. But at this point, when India has scored from only a penalty in over 650 minutes of football, it will not care who puts the ball in the net.

Stimac will be keen to get his starting XI right as he hopes to exploit the defensive highline of Qatar and Rahim Ali’s pace could get him the nod alongside Lallianzuala Chhangte and Manvir Singh or Mahesh Singh Naorem.

Sahal Abdul Samad could make way for Brandon Fernandes, while Stimac will have to make a call on adding Jeakson Singh to provide aerial presence and strength to the midfield.

“The match against a younger but strong opponent gives us exactly the kind of game which suits us; counter-attacking game with a good middle block, being patient and waiting for our speed to come from our players’ legs with a clinical finish,” said Stimac.

With the limited possession likely on offer, India must be incisive and purposeful with its passing and not linger on the ball as it did against Kuwait.

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In the past, in 2019, with a similar low-block approach, India resisted a barrage of shots from an experienced Qatar team to come out with a creditable goalless draw. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who in that game had the captain’s armband on, made 11 saves and this time, he will have to replicate similar heroics if called upon.

After all the blown opportunities in the last three months, this game provides the last chance to salvage the immediate future of Indian football. And the same goes for Stimac.

India vs Qatar will kick-off at 9.15 pm IST and will be streamed live on Fancode.