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Sunil Chhetri-less India face Qatar in crucial WC qualifier | Football News

The result, Igor Stimac likes to say, is in God’s hands. The team is in his and the Croat will have to find a replacement for India’s principal scorer Sunil Chhetri. That too in a World Cup qualifier India cannot lose. And a time when they haven’t scored a goal from open play in six matches. “We are trying not to think about it. There are other leaders,” said Stimac.

Indian football team players in a training session.(AFP)

With right-back Nikhil Poojary not being 100% fit, India head coach Stimac could opt for a back three and start either Manvir Singh or Vikram Partap Singh as a wingback. Rahim Ali could start as striker.

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Poojary, a team official said on a text message, has a slight ankle injury. Not authorised to speak to the media, the official did not want to be named.

Jay Gupta, who had a decent debut in the 0-0 draw against Kuwait here last Thursday, could start as left wingback, the official said. Using Anirudh Thapa and Sahal Abdul Samad didn’t work against Kuwait and left India looking emaciated in the midfield. It is possible that Jeakson Singh will replace Thapa and Brandon Fernandes start in Sahal’s place.

Chhetri was not part of the squad when India won their only point against Qatar under Stimac. Fever and fatigue had forced Chhetri out of the 0-0 draw in Doha in 2019, one of India’s biggest results ever. After 19 years and 151 internationals in which he scored 94 goals, Chhetri retired after last Thursday’s 0-0 draw against Kuwait.

“You want to play for ever, we all do, but at almost 40, Sunil played for 90 minutes and more against a good team like Kuwait. That’s what I call retiring on a high,” said Renedy Singh, who has played with Chhetri for club and country and was part of the coaching staff at Bengaluru FC last term.

Named captain after Chhetri’s retirement, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, 32, made 11 saves against Qatar in 2019. He will need another big night. A draw on Tuesday could be enough to qualify for the third round if Kuwait and Afghanistan don’t get a better result in their match that starts two hours later.

“I am surprised,” said Stimac. “All of us in the football family are trying to stay away from suspicious things and so kick-off should be at the same time.”

If India win, it will take them to eight points. Afghanistan can also get that many but have a goal differential of -10. A win for Kuwait will help them end on seven points.

India have not scored in three previous games against the twice Asian champions. But if there is a silver lining to this, it is that Qatar, who have already qualified for the third round, have named a young squad with 21 players aged below 24. “I want to see fresh talent in Qatar and develop them,” said Qatar coach Tintin Marquez.

“We are excited about what we can do facing such young talent. We are going to look for a win if possible as that will give us the best chance to qualify,” said Stimac.

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