Exciting to exiting: How India's FIFA World Cup qualifying unravelled game by game


India were knocked out of the FIFA World Cup qualifying after a controversial defeat to Qatar. However, India didn't fail due to that one refereeing error, as you'd think. It was more a culmination of errors committed over the six-match campaign, as we try to explore here:

Kuwait 0-1 India

What happened in the match?

India opened their FIFA World Cup qualification campaign with a 0-1 win away against Kuwait, with Manvir Singh scoring the game's only goal in the 75th minute. This was India's first away victory in the FIFA WCQs in 22 years and ended a run of six games without a win in regulation time.

What went right?

The frustration of India's non-qualification is compounded when considering games like this. Igor Stimac was pitch-perfect: he picked the right team, had a perfect gameplan and made the correct substitutions.

It started with picking Mahesh Singh and keeping Lallianzuala Chhangte in reserve, a gameplan that had India sit back and counter which was aided by Apuia's stellar performance in midfield - Stimac putting aside his issues with him for the greater good.

It culminated in a team move that ended with Manvir finding the net - a template for exactly how India ought to have approached the rest of the qualification journey.

India 0-3 Qatar

What happened in the match?

Qatar played a full-strength team with the AFC Asian Cup on the horizon, and walked away 3-0 winners with two goals (Almoez Ali 47', Yusuf Abdurisag 86') scored in a second half. The visitors moved through the gears after a quiet first half, where Mostafa Meshaal gave Qatar the lead in the 4th minute.

What went wrong?

A 0-3 defeat at home would ordinarily cause inquests, but instead they were aimed at Qatar, who sacked manager Carlos Queiroz after the game. India performed fairly well in the first half, bouncing back from an early concession to limit the visitors.

The second half was simply the Akram Afif show as he put in a performance that India had no answers too. In fairness, this was always a losing battle and earning any sort of result against the team that would go on to win the AFC Asian Cup in a few months was always a tall ask.

Afghanistan 0-0 India

What happened in the match?

India returned humbled from a disastrous AFC Asian Cup campaign, and in their first competitive action since, they drew 0-0 away to minnows Afghanistan who were missing plenty of their first-team players.

What went wrong?

All the pre-match talk surrounded the knowledge Ashley Westwood, manager of Afghanistan, would have about his former players in the Indian team - but ignored that it worked both ways. India ought to have been aware of exactly what Westwood can do as an underdog - sit deep in an organized defence and launch long balls to trouble the opposition.

Yet, India clearly underestimated an Afghanistan side that was dealing with a player boycott and barely made a dent in the match. Stimac made five substitutions and the impact was negligible, which he went on to acknowledge later.

Afghanistan even troubled India late on, with long balls on the counter and this was the beginning of the downfall for India's qualification campaign. Still, a draw away to the team expected to finish last was still salvageable... but lessons needed to be learned first.

India 1 - 2 Afghanistan

What happened in the match?

Sunil Chhetri scored the opener (a penalty) to cap a convincing first half performance. In the second half, Afghanistan went on the attack late and took the win via goals from Rahmat Akbari and Sharif Mukhammed (a penalty).

What went wrong?

The lessons that ought to have been learnt from the reverse fixture weren't. Long balls were not dealt with and complacency snuck in. In the second half the team went into a defensive shell, leading to increasing pressure through the half.

The in-game subs hurt the team too: Chhetri was taken off as part of a triple substitution. The three players who came on were completely different from the profiles of the three taken off (Chhetri, Brandon, Liston off for Chhangte, Thapa and Mahesh) which forced an alteration of the gameplan.

The equaliser came two minutes later. In the 85th minute, Stimac took off Jeakson for Vikram Pratap, completely unbalancing the team and Afghanistan scored the winner in the 88th minute.

India 0-0 Kuwait

What happened in the match?

A 0-0 draw in Sunil Chhetri's last match in India blue.

What went wrong?

Stimac deviated from the template that had won him the first game. He sacrificed midfield control to squeeze in attacking players and that showed. He then compounded this mistake with his subs: by the end of the match, India had centre-forwards Rahim Ali and Edmund playing in central midfield, playmaker/left winger Brandon playing on the right wing and right winger/#10 Chhangte playing left back.

The system put players in positions almost designed to get the worst out of them, and that's exactly what happened. No tangible chances were created at any stage of the match.

Qatar 2-1 India

What happened in the match?

India took the lead via Chhangte to cap a first half performance of real promise, albeit against a woefully under-strength Qatar team. In the second half, the repeated the mistake they had done against Afghanistan and retreated, inviting more and more pressure. It told as Yousef Aymen and Ahmed Al Rawi scored to knock India out of the qualifiers.

What went wrong?

In the second half, just about everything. Once again, the subs accelerated the collapse: Rahim Ali, who had been integral to the gameplan by running the channels and holding the ball up was hooked and in his place came Liston Colaco - a player not made for either of these tasks.

As the gameplan went awry and India became ultra-defensive, a refereeing error gifted Qatar the equaliser nine minutes after that substitution. Why the experienced Gurpreet and his teammates didn't play to the whistle is question for another time, but it's telling that the team broke down after that and it seemed almost inevitable that Qatar would score the winner.