India can bemoan what could have been a famous win. But contentious goals do happen in football and captain Gurpreet Singh Sandhu stopped playing even though the ball was still in play according to the referees. It wasn’t just him but most of India’s defensive line that switched off – and Qatar did not. What should have been a corner, became a goal, and neither the referee nor the linesman had any of the answers that the horde of Indian players surrounding them were asking.

That Qatar goal, one that should have been disallowed but was somehow accepted in a VAR-void World Cup qualifier tie, broke down a resolute Indian second-half defensive performance and canceled out Lallianzuala Chhangte’s first-half goal. Qatar then scored twelve minutes later to take the lead to knock the Indians out of the World Cup qualifiers in the second round.

Yes, India was shortchanged in Doha. But this is also a side that chooses to up their game against a second-string team of the Asian champions in their home, but can only conjure a draw and a home loss to Afghanistan and a home draw to Kuwait after a month-long camp. . They may have been knocked out today from the World Cup qualifiers, but then they have only themselves to blame for being in this situation in the first place.

All eleven Qatar players who orchestrated the 3-0 defeat of India in Bhubaneswar in the first match of this group, were not present on Tuesday. And the first ten minutes of the first half made it seem like they weren’t really required by the 2024 AFC Asian Cup champions. Two corners in the fifth minute, one of which required a lightning-fast reflexive save from the gloves of Gurpreet Singh Sandhu pulled in the ominous clouds over the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium. A goal-line clearance by Mehtab Singh in the 11th minute helped strengthen the belief that Qatar was moments away from scoring.

Somehow, India moved away from this doom-and-gloom.

A frenetic pressing style combined by a brave defensive line and suddenly India were playing football on very little real estate, and forcing Qatar to play within their rules. The equation goes – 22 players closer to each other, with the ones in blue running a faster press and giving less time on the ball – would equal burgeoning Qatari mistakes.

Whenever this young team would try to move forwards, India’s backline would show proactiveness and push them off the ball. Control in the midfield, even more rare than an Indian open play goal, suddenly decided to show its glorious face.

Momentum can be a funny thing in football. Reputations, rankings all can go for a toss. India, currently ranked below Qatar on the FIFA table, were not just bossing them in their home turf, but starting to make chances. The best of them was a Manvir Singh run onto goal which should have been the first for India, but his weak attempt was smothered by Qatar custodian Shehab Ellethy. The rebound came to Chhangte, who should have scored his first, but was instead tackled at the last moment.

Festive offer

Chhangte would get two more chances at goal that he would inexplicably not be able to pull the trigger for. But then a through ball from deep within the left-midfield came and the Mizo attacker’s fine run was rewarded and a simple finish past the keeper was all it took for India to take a deserved lead. The goal may have been ordinary, but the setup was dripping with quality. Brandon Fernandes’ vision was matched by his feet threading through a microscopic pass through the Qatari midfield.

India ended the first half on 53% possession, two shots on goal. But it was a half where they crucially should have taken their chances and killed the game off. Instead, they were made to go through an arduous second half – one where Qatar, with not much to play for, consistently breached their opponent’s half and then broke them down – even though it was a moment of injustice that finally got them there.

Even as the game neared an unfulfilling end, India had their chances. But memories of the loss to Afghanistan in Guwahati and a chronic inability to score goals looped themselves into a noose and tightened itself onto this Indian team, that had all the chances to go into the third round of the WCQ but instead will watch Qatar and Kuwait try their luck out to go for the 2026 World Cup.