• Sun. Apr 21st, 2024

India suffer shock defeat against Afghanistan

India’s quest for a place in the third round of the FIFA World Cup 2026 and AFC Asian Cup 2027 Preliminary Joint Qualifiers suffered a serious jolt when they went down to Afghanistan 1-2 on Tuesday. The winners trailed 0-1 at half time.

Skipper Sunil Chhetri, playing his 150th International, kept his date with history by giving the Blue Tigers the lead off a penalty kick in the 38th minute in front of jam-packed stands at the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium in Guwahati. The joy, however, was turned into complete misery when Rahmat Akbari’s shot deflected off a defender to find its way past Gurpreet Singh Sandhu in the 70th minute for the equaliser, and then Sharif Mukhammad dealt the deathly blow by converting a penalty in the 88th minute.

The loss of three points in this home tie left India with just four points from four matches in the four-team Round 2 group. While Qatar lead the group with nine points from three matches, Afghanistan, too, have four points from as many matches.

India have two more matches in hand. While defeating Asian champions Qatar in the away match would be a difficult task, it may finally boil down to India’s hope match against Kuwait on June 6, 2024. But Afghanistan can definitely aspire to overtake India in the points table.

India, who drew the away match against Afghanistan goalless in Saudi Arabia, desperately needed full points from this encounter to keep alive their hopes of a long and arduous journey to the third round. But like it was in Abha, Saudi Arabia, the Indians did everything to stretch the rival defence time and again but fell short of converting them into goals. They did create a few chances, including a second-minute shot by Chhetri that hit the post before Manvir blew it over the bar, but faltered at crucial moments in the second half to leave the turf empty-handed.

India took the lead in the 38th minute. Haroon Amiri, the captain and towering figure in the Afghanistan defence, made the cardinal mistake of handling the ball inside the box as he found the inviting cross from the right by Manvir Singh, added with a fast-approaching Sunil Chhetri, hard to negotiate with and the Saudi Arabian referee pointed to the spot without hesitation.

As the packed stands waited with bated breath, Chhetri stepped in to slam the ball into the right of the goalkeeper Ovays Azizi, with a low but confident shot. He seemed unaffected by the riotous celebrations in the stadium and the sheer delight displayed by his teammates and he walked back to his position calmly.

It was Chhetri’s 94th international goal and the first after a seven-match drought. He now holds the unique record of scoring at least one goal in his first, 25th, 50th, 75th, 100th, and 125th matches. But in the end, this unique achievement took the back seat as India surrendered all the points on the pitch.

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