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Wednesday, August 04, 2021

India achieve the bare minimum, qualify for Round 3 of Asian Cup qualifiers

Both goals were scored by Afghanistan players as goalkeeper Ovays Azizi dropped a routine catch into his own goal in the 75th minute to give the Indians the lead.

Written by Shashank Nair | New Delhi |
Updated: June 16, 2021 12:41:44 pm
India's Sandesh Jhingan applauds fans after the match (Source: Reuters)

India needed a draw against Afghanistan to secure the third spot in Group E of the World Cup Qualifiers and make it to the third round of the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers, a target they achieved after a 1-1 stalemate at the Jassim Bin Hammad Stadium in Doha, on Tuesday. Seven points from eight games means India finished this campaign with four more points than what they achieved in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers.

Both goals were scored by Afghanistan players as goalkeeper Ovays Azizi dropped a routine catch into his own goal in the 75th minute to give the Indians the lead. But that mistake was quickly rectified by his teammates on the other end seven minutes later as Hossein Zamani latched onto some poor defending in the box and launched a curler onto Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s far post.

The first ten minutes of the game saw both teams start with the intention of inflicting some damage on their opponents. That instinct was quickly lost by an Indian team that would try their best to get the ball off the Afghans only to cheaply give it away when won. The very midfield that bossed Bangladesh was shackled and controlled easily by Afghanistan.

Brandon Fernandes, a creative outlet for India in their previous WCQ match, was man-marked out of the game and in his absence, no other midfield player could step up and bridge that elusive gap between the midfield and attack. Even retaining possession became arduous against a team ranked below them and yet, filled with players plying their trade in better leagues outside their country.

India’s best chances of the game, be it Ashique Kuruniyan making a lunging run into the box and finding no one with his cutback, or Sunil Chhetri blasting a freekick over the crossbar, was missing a final bit of quality.

Coach Igor Stimac’s team finished the game with 48% possession. Two changes in the squad – Udanta Singh and Bipin Singh for Ashique Kuruniyan and Rahul Bheke – meant the Croatian decided to forego the three-man backline employed against Bangladesh. The lack of an extra man in midfield hurt any chances of sustained possession and what worked in India’s favour against Bangladesh was cast aside on Tuesday in favour of an extra man at the back.

The first goal of the game came against the run of play. Kuruniyan, playing wide on the left, launched a cross into the box. What should have been an easy take for the Afghan keeper, turned into a comical error as the ball slipped from Azizi’s hands, hit his feet and bounced into the goal. Somehow, India, a team that has not enjoyed the best of luck in these World Cup qualifiers, was given a thoroughly undeserved lead with 15 minutes left on the clock.

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India’s ability to defend one-on-one was brought under the scanner seven minutes later by Afghanistan. Rahul Bheke, who was suspended for the previous match after getting two yellow cards against Qatar, was unable to stop a cutback from Noor Husin. The pass back into the box found 18-year-old Hossein Zamani.

The winger, currently playing for Dutch club Telstar, curled a right-footed shot onto the Indian far post. Both Chinglesana Singh and Glan Martins failed to tackle the player or block the ensuing shot as Afghanistan earned a well-deserved equaliser. India almost stole it at the death with Manvir Singh connecting onto a cross from Subhasish Bose. But the header went wide of the crossbar.

In these World Cup qualifiers, India managed only one win. At the start of the qualifiers, they were expected to challenge Oman for the second spot. A close loss to them in their opening home game, coupled with a draw against the Asian Champions at their own territory further fuelled claims of India being a force to reckon with.

But a batch of poor performances against Bangladesh and Afghanistan – coupled with further losses to Oman and Qatar forced India to play with their backs against the wall against opponents ranked below them, in order to make matters easier for the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers.

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