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Inches Apart - The Narrow Margin Between Victory and Defeat

Cue uproar.

All the talk after India's defeat at Doha against a very under-strength Qatar team will be about this goal, the equaliser. India had earlier outplayed the hosts in the first half and taken the lead in the 37th thanks to an opportunistic piece of finishing from Lallianzuala Chhangte, and had held that lead till Al Hussain and Aymen pulled this off in the 73rd.

It hurt especially because of how good India had been until then. After a slow start, India had been sharp for large swathes of the first half. In this first match of the post-Sunil Chhetri era, Igor Stimac's men leaned on the collective and took the game to Qatar's young uns. Rahim Ali's selfless running and hold up play allowed Brandon Fernandes and Chhangte and Manvir Singh to get into the game, the forwards a whirlwind of constant motion.

Jeakson Singh dominated midfield while behind him Anwar Ali pinged passes around accurately. Jay Gupta bombed forward with aplomb. There were glimpses of real understanding between the players too: one-touch passing allowed them to swiftly cut through Qatar's midfield on many an occasion. Sure, there were a couple of last-ditch goal line clearances by the excellent Mehtab Singh, but moving forward India seemed a force.

In the second half, though, India seemed content to sit on the 1-0 lead and looked to be doing so comfortably till the equaliser. The moment it was given, India deflated. Having decided to go all-defensive they were ill prepared to do much about a change in scoreline. The way the match went after that, it was almost inevitable that the enterprising young Ahmed Al-Rawi would score one more for Qatar (in the 85th minute). And that's how it ended, India losing 1-2, knocked out of FIFA World Cup Qualifying by an inch that went unseen.

But was it all down to that one inch? First, the incident itself. We have the luxury of multiple angles and slow motion to make the call. On the field, the referee was unsighted by the mass of players in front of him and his assistant was on the other flank. Once they had given the goal, neither could have been able to give enough credible reason to overturn it as it was essentially a he said, they said situation.

And what is to say that the incessant pressure that Qatar had been building till then wouldn't tell by the end of the 90? Even if you take the unfairness of the decision into account, was it really *that moment* that cost India qualification?

Take a look back at the campaign, and it's plain that India had done very little to qualify on merit in what had been a relatively easy group of four. Across 540 + minutes in six matches, India scored three goals. They won just one game. While losses to Qatar were understandable, the other results weren't as easy to digest. They drew a winnable match against Kuwait and took just one point from the six that clashes with much lower ranked Afghanistan offered. The plan had never been to go into Doha needing a win - after all, you couldn't have predicted that the likes of Almoez Ali and Akram Afif would have been rested.


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