Qatar took a giant step towards qualifying for the Asian Under-23 championship after overcoming a resolute India 1-0 in their Group C qualifying match yesterday.
The victory at Al Sadd stadium put Qatar in a pole position to qualify for next year’s championship in China, after Syria were held to a 0-0 draw by Turkmenistan in another Group C match.
Qatar and Syria were jointly occupying the top spot after their opening fixtures. But after last night’s win over India, the hosts will just need to draw against Syria tomorrow to book their ticket to China.
Only group winners will automatically qualify for the AFC U-23 Championship. The five best runners-up across all groups will also qualify for the finals. However, if hosts China win their group or are among the best five runners-up, the sixth best runner-up will also qualify.
Despite the victory, it was a lacklustre performance from Qatar, with the inexperienced but spirited Indian team making Felix Sanchez’s side sweat for victory.
Qatar wasted plenty of opportunities, and were especially poor in converting corners and set-pieces. Qatar were lucky to get the breakthrough after a lapse of concentration from the Indian goalkeeper, rather than any individual brilliance.
After having kept his composure to thwart the Qatari attack in the first half, Vishal Kaith’s misjudgement resulted in a goal for the hosts in the 53rd minute. After receiving a long ball, Ahmed Mohamed al-Sadi headed the ball into the box, where Almoez Ali was stationed.
Kaith at that moment rushed in to collect the bouncing ball but only to miss it completely as Ali positioned himself to slot the ball into an open goal. It was much-needed a strike for Qataris but the game was not over yet.
Unlike during their loss against Syria, where Indian players fizzled out in the second half after a competitive first-half performance, Stephen Constantine’s boys did not let their guard down this time.
They went on offensive in search for an equaliser and were unfortunate not to find the net on couple of occasions. The last ten minutes were particularly frantic as Qatari defenders were kept on tenterhooks.
India came closest in the 80th minute when substitute Manvir Singh’s fierce shot hit the crossbar. As the ball bounced back into the box, Qatar were let off again as Jerry Lalrinzuala’s header just went over the bar.
With around 1,000 Indian supporters cheering on vociferously, Indians intensified their attacks but were unable to get past Qatar goalkeeper Mohamed al-Bakari. In the 83rd minute, Golui Sarthak went for a header from a corner but al-Bakari managed to latch on to it.
The visitors had a couple of goal-scoring chances in the dying minutes from corners and free kicks but failed to deliver a knockout blow. Despite a resolute show, Constantine’s men will miss out on a qualification after having lost both their encounters, with the match against Turkmenistan tomorrow an inconsequential one.
For Qatar coach Sanchez the result was bitter-sweet as his star striker Akram Afif, who had a quiet night, went off in the 79th minute after sustaining what looked like an ankle injury.
“It was a tough match but we got all three points,” said a relieved Sanchez after the match. “India played a tough game and we didn’t play our game. In the second half we had some good moments but in the last twenty minutes, we had a tough time. Our aim is to ensure qualification in the next game. Syria have very strong potential and it’s going to be a tough game against them,” the Spaniard added.
Constantine, who is India’s senior team head coach but took charge of the young guns for the qualifiers in order to ensure a place in the continental elite, was left frustrated after having come so close to taking a point. “Congratulations to Qatar. They were fortunate to score a goal. I am proud of my players,” said the 54-year-old.
The British coach rued a silly mistake, albeit a costly one from his goalkeeper, but took heart from another brave performance from his boys. “Some of the boys were playing international football for the first time and they didn’t deserve to lose this game. We lost because of another silly mistake. Another day it would have hit the crossbar and gone inside. They have shown fantastic determination,” Constantine said.
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