Chhetri's last dance in India's must-win match against Kuwait

A victory here will put India firmly ahead of Afghanistan, who face Qatar in a tough fixture later on Thursday.
Indian striker Sunil Chhetri
Indian striker Sunil Chhetri (Photo | PTI)

KOLKATA: Emotions will run high when the talismanic Sunil Chhetri leads India out one last time in a crucial FIFA World Cup qualifying match against Kuwait here on Thursday, hoping to propel his team into the next round as a parting gift after dominating the national football landscape for 19 years.

The 39-year-old Chhetri will hang his boots at the end of this match and would like to ensure that the team enters the final-18 stage of the World Cup qualifiers for the first time.

The top two teams from nine groups of four teams each will go on to make the third stage. This round will decide FIFA's increased allocation of eight World Cup berths for Asia.

It will be a little far-fetched to imagine India in the 2026 World Cup in North America, but a win over Kuwait will take the team into the unchartered territory of being up against the best of Asia in at least 10 matches. That would also translate into some quality friendly games.

Occupying the second spot behind Qatar (12 points) in Group A with four points from four games, India are ahead of Afghanistan on goal difference and Kuwait, who have three points.

A victory here will put India firmly ahead of Afghanistan, who face Qatar in a tough fixture later on Thursday.

Afghanistan have a seven-goal deficit against India and a win against Kuwait will virtually keep the equation out of their reach.

India face Qatar, while Afghanistan take on Kuwait in the final round fixtures on Tuesday. For 19 years, Chhetri has carried the footballing hopes of a nation labelled as the 'sleeping giant' of world football.

With 94 goals from 150 appearances and a dozen trophies in his cabinet, the diminutive Indian captain is a bonafide legend of the game. And it will be an evening of high emotions at the venue where his professional football career took shape with Mohun Bagan in early 2000s.

Indian striker Sunil Chhetri
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A packed crowd is expected at the Salt Lake Stadium to celebrate Chhetri's last dance.

Chhetri has happy memories against Kuwait, having played a key role in the equaliser by Sahal Abdul Samad that forced a penalty shootout and eventually a 5-4 triumph for India in the 2023 SAFF Championship in Bengaluru.

That India had defeated Kuwait by a solitary goal from Manvir Singh in their group league opener in the away fixture in November last year will also be a morale-booster for Igor Stimac's side, who then suffered a slip-up by going down to Qatar 0-3.

Then came the Asian Cup shock where the team drew a blank, losing all its three matches and failing to score even a single goal.

It went from bad to worse for India, who resumed their World Cup qualifiers against Afghanistan, and failed to score in a goalless draw.

More misery was in store in their home match in Guwahati where the Blue Tigers suffered a 1-2 defeat, conceding a late goal to the South Asian neighbours.

The struggles against Afghanistan reveal deeper issues plaguing the national team.

Despite creating opportunities, India's inability to finish crucial chances will be a significant concern.

The shortcoming was quite pronounced against Afghanistan as the team managed just one shot on target compared to Afghanistan's five in their shock 1-2 defeat in Guwahati.

Midfielders Anirudh Thapa and Lallianzuala Chhangte also failed to make an impact, exacerbating the problem. Their lack of creativity and precision, made worse by ineffective ball control and passing, contributed to India's misery.

Indian striker Sunil Chhetri
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In between the sticks, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who at 71 matches is the next most experienced after Chhetri, will also have to step up. His penalty concession due to a communication failure resulted in Afghanistan scoring the winner in March.

But India will be coming in with solid preparation for this match.

They have made some interesting additions in I-League forwards Edmund Lalrindika (Inter Kashi) and David Lalhlansanga (Mohammedan Sporting) who will be aiming to become the first players in five years to make national debuts from the second tier league.

The defence, however, will have to cope with the absence of Sandesh Jhingan who has been sidelined due to an injury from the Asian Cup in January.

It remains to be seen if the likes of Rahul Bheke, Anwar Ali and Subhasish Bose will be able to compensate for his absence, especially the aerial strength he has provided over the years.

Focus will also be on Lallianzuala Chhangte, who had a strong 2023-24 ISL season, scoring 10 goals and providing six assists for Mumbai City FC.

He will look to carry this form against Kuwait, who will have the firepower of Hassan Al-Enezi in the defense.

Kuwait are coming to the game after routing Afghanistan 4-0 with their key forward duo of Shabaib Al Khaldi and Mohammed Daham scoring three goals between them. The duo will once again be a big threat to the Indians.

Kuwait will also have Mohsen Ghareeb who performed well in their previous encounter, will be tasked with stopping Chhangte if he starts in the left-back position.

Squads:

India: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu (GK); Nikhil Poojary, Subhasish Bose, Anwar Ali, Jay Gupta; Jeakson Singh, Anirudh Thapa; Naorem Mahesh Singh, Brandon Fernandes, Lallianzuala Chhangte; Sunil Chhetri.

Kuwait: Sulaiman Abdulghafour (GK); Rashed Al-Dosary, Khalid El Ebrahim, Hassan Al-Enezi, Salman Bormeya; Eid Al-Rasheedi; Hamad Al-Harbi, Faisal Zayed, Azbi Shehab, Mohammad Daham; Yousef Nasser.

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