Qatar tie: Blue Tigers brace for life without Sunil Chettri in Doha

We need to cope with his exit and move forward, says goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu

Gurpreet Singh Sandhu practising in Kolkata (courtesy: AIFF)
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu practising in Kolkata (courtesy: AIFF)

NH Sports Bureau

The aftershocks of Sunil Chettri’s retirement from international football may still keep his legion of fans numb, but the Blue Tigers are in no position to brood over it. Less the 48 hours after his exit, the Indian football team left Kolkata for Doha on the tough assignment of either beating group toppers Qatar on 11 June, or at least drawing with them to keep their chances alive to progress to the third round of the FIFA 2026 World Cup qualifiers.   

After India had blown their best chance to progress in the qualifiers with a goalless draw against Kuwait on 6 June in front of a 58,000-plus strong home crowd, India still remained in second spot in Group A with five points, as Afghanistan also held Qatar in a barren game. The Afghans also have five points but trail India on goal-difference, while Kuwait are still at the bottom with four points.

With four winless games on the trot and now with their inspirational captain Chettri gone, the challenge for India will be to keep morale high and draw on some strong performances in the past. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, the lanky goalkeeper who had a memorable encounter in holding Qatar to a goalless draw in 2019 in Doha at the 2022 World Cup qualifier, is ready to play the leader’s role.

Looking visibly crestfallen after the skipper’s exit, the 31-year-old Sandhu promised to fight for another day. "We’ll prepare for it like any other game but obviously this time we won’t have Sunil bhai with us, which is sad but we as a nation, need to cope with that and move forward. We need to prepare in the best possible manner because any game is not lost before it's played. We’ll go to Qatar to get all three points."

Igor Stimac, the head coach who announced a 23-member squad for the tour without the talismanic Chettri on the roster after years, said there was no option but to keep the faith in their own abilities against a much higher-ranked opponent.

"As coach, I need to do everything I can in the next few days to create an environment of belief. It’s a very different challenge against the Asian champions. It’s a small hope but it’s still there and we need to believe, go there and give it our best shot to try to win the game,’’ the former Croatian World Cupper said.

India's 23-member squad

Goalkeepers: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Amrinder Singh, Vishal Kaith 

Defenders: Anwar Ali, Jay Gupta, Mehtab Singh, Narender, Nikhil Poojary, Rahul Bheke 

Midfielders: Anirudh Thapa, Brandon Fernandes, Edmund Lalrindika, Jeakson Singh Thounaojam, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Liston Colaco, Mahesh Singh Naorem, Nandhakumar Sekar, Sahal Abdul Samad, Suresh Singh Wangjam 

Forwards: Manvir Singh, Rahim Ali, Vikram Partap Singh, David Lalhlansanga

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Published: 08 Jun 2024, 9:00 PM