CHENNAI: Playing against Asian champions Qatar with 11 men was going to be hard enough for India, but Igor Stimac's side was left with the unenviable task of playing with just 10 men for more than 70 minutes of their Asian Cup qualifying clash in Doha on Thursday. The outcome was along expected lines as Qatar notched up a 1-0 win over India. India remain fourth in Group E with three points.
Right-back Rahul Bheke was sent off as early as in the 17th minute after being penalised with two yellow cards. The first booking came in the ninth minute for a foul on Hassan Al-Haydos while the marching orders for Bheke came after a handball eight minutes later.
India have their task cut out in the remaining two games, against Bangladesh on June 7 and Afghanistan on June 15, as they may need to win both to cement their spot in the third round of the Asian Cup qualifiers.
Bheke’s sending off duly dissipated whatever little hopes India had of coming away with a favourable result. After a string of half-chances, Qatar finally punished India in the 33rd minute. It was Abdulaziz Hatem who provided the breakthrough with a left-footed shot that got the better of India goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.
The one chance India had was in the 30th minute when a cross from Ashique Kuruniyan on the left wing almost found Manvir Singh’s right foot inside the box, but a timely interception from Qatar's Boualem Khoukhi helped them evade a rare moment of danger.
At the start of the second half, Stimac decided to bring on Udanta Singh for skipper Sunil Chhetri. With Chhetri's presence set to be more valuable against relatively easier opponents in Bangladesh and Afghanistan, Stimac’s decision to take Chhetri off and not risk any injury to the veteran forward was understandable.
The pattern of play was largely predictable in the second half as Qatar continued asserting their dominance. A slew of Qatar players had chances to double the lead, but Gurpreet did well to keep India in the hunt at least theoretically. The lanky goalie was the star of India's 0-0 draw against Qatar two years ago and he was in similar form on a warm Thursday night.
“I didn’t count the number of saves. But I feel it was more than the last time. We played with 10 men for most of the match. But we had our chances too,” Gurpreet said after the match.
While India would have eventually been relieved that they restricted Qatar to just one goal, they need to be making better use of the ball if they are to do well in the next two games.