Goalkeeper and stand-in captain Gurpreet Singh Sandhu pulled off almost a dozen saves to help India nick an unlikely point off Asian champions Qatar, at their home, in the 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asian Cup joint qualifiers on Tuesday.
The match, for large durations, appeared like a defending drill at a training ground with Qatar attacking India from all sides, muscling past the midfielders and slipping in behind the defence, to create a host of goal-scoring chances. But their headers flew over the crossbar, hit the goalpost and on the occasions they managed to get a shot on target, were denied by Sandhu who recorded one of his finest performances for the national team to guide India to a 0-0 draw.
India, ranked 103 in the world, entered the contest as massive underdogs against the hosts of the 2022 World Cup, ranked 41 places above them. This has been Qatar’s coming-of-age year, with their young side winning their maiden continental championship and then giving a good account of themselves in the Copa America, where they were one of two guest teams.
Led by striker Almoez Ali, their attack in particular has been unstoppable this year. Before Tuesday, only Colombia, Brazil and Argentina had stopped Qatar from scoring in 2019. Before kick-off, the talk mainly was about the margin that Qatar would win by. That they would claim all three points seemed a foregone conclusion, especially because India were without captain Sunil Chhetri, who was down with fever, and industrious forward Ashique Kuruniyan.
Realistic about their abilities, India’s plan going into the match seemed straightforward: frustrate the Qataris for as long as possible and hope to catch them on the counterattack, using winger Udanta Singh’s pace on the right.
That pattern played out from the first whistle. Qatar rolled over India’s midfield, pushing them deep into their own half. Their quick passing and interplay puzzled the Indians, who were routinely unable to read most moves Qatar initiated. In fact, there was very little Qatar did wrong – apart from sloppiness in front of goal.
Sandesh Jhingan and Adil Khan, the two centre-backs, did their bit in closing down angles and forcing the strikers wide. But that hardly seemed to bother Qatar as Hasan Al Haydos, Yusuf Abdurisag and Assim Madibo wrecked havoc around the Indian penalty area with their stunning off-the-ball moves. However, Sandhu was in inspired form and had to deal with 14 goal-scoring opportunities created by the hosts in the first half.
After somehow keeping the scoreline 0-0 at half time, India began the second period with a little more intent. The midfielders were able to assert themselves better. Rowllin Borges started winning the second balls more frequently while Sahal Abdul Samad, rated as one of India’s best young midfielders, was not shy to show off his skills, and tried to dribble past one or two Qataris to release Udanta on the right.
The intent to counter Qatar using Udanta’s pace was a refreshing change in strategy after the first half where India were forced to go on an ultra-defensive mode. India had three half-chances to score, all in the second half.
First, Udanta tried to find striker Manvir Singh – who started in place of Chhetri – with a low cross that sailed in front of the goal, but Manvir could not reach it. The Bengaluru FC winger then had a go himself from just outside the box, but his left-footed shot curled over the cross bar. Soon after, Sahal’s snap-shot went narrowly wide off the goalpost.
Apart from these attempts, India did not trouble Qatar, who continued to pile pressure on India. Somehow, though, India hung on to the clean sheet – only their second of the year – to record a draw that feels like a win.