India began their 2026 FIFA World Cup second-round qualification campaign with a bang, earning a hard-fought 1-0 win away to Kuwait. Igor Stimac's men were hugely impressive throughout, as India ended a run of six games without a win in regulation time thanks to a 75th-minute goal from Manvir Singh coupled with a stellar defensive effort.
As is often the case whenever India take to the football pitch, the game provided plenty to reflect upon.
How big was the win?
The numbers reveal the significance of the win - this was India's first away win in a FIFA World Cup qualifier in 22 years, although the win over Bangladesh in the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers came at a neutral venue in Doha due to Covid restrictions. India's last away win in the FIFA WCQ had come against Brunei in 2001 - in perhaps India's best-ever qualification campaign.
That side featured a young Mahesh Gawli in defence - who last deputized for Stimac as manager of the national team a few months ago. This sort of win isn't the norm - and this Indian team deserves plenty of credit.
In terms of the ramifications of the group, the win is hugely significant - Qatar are clear favourites to top the standings, as evidenced by their 8-1 evisceration of Afghanistan on Thursday. The battle for second place (which would seal qualification for the 2027 AFC Asian Cup and progression to the third round of the World Cup qualifiers) is between 136th-ranked Kuwait and India (ranked 102 in the world), with Afghanistan (WR 154) an outside bet. An away win gives India the advantage and makes the two games against Qatar not as relevant - with Afghanistan evidently beatable and a draw against Kuwait at home sufficient to progress.
The return of defensive solidity
India's last outing was a thrilling 2-4 defeat to Malaysia in the Merdeka Cup, where Stimac's side were quite the mess at the back. The absence of Jeakson Singh with a shoulder injury affected the side in transitions, with Jeakson's stellar understanding of his role in the rest defence (the defensive shape India occupies in possession to prevent a transition) was sorely missed.
Suresh Singh Wangjam isn't as suited to the role in Stimac's side since his style of play with Bengaluru FC (a transition team themselves) has him rarely in that high-risk role where he has to be the first to snuff out a counter-attack. Lalengmawia Ralte, aka Apuia, had reportedly been frozen out from the national setup due to an apparent issue with ill-discipline, but Stimac's hand was perhaps forced with Jeakson's injury. The Mumbai City FC midfielder plays a similar role with his club and slotted in with ease as the base of midfield alongside Suresh - with Kuwait (a side excellent in transitions with their threats down the wing) nullified for the most part.
- Indian Super League (@IndSuperLeague) November 16, 2023
Coupled with Rahul Bheke's return to the lineup (as a better defender than the ball-playing Mehtab Singh), India locked up Kuwait with ease as their defensive balance was restored. Jeakson remains a miss, but with Apuia in place, Stimac can rely on his preferred style of play. This may change against Qatar in India's next game since they will have less of the ball, but the options in midfield are now plentiful.
India's art on the pitch
It's become a theme with this Indian side of late - their penchant for scoring goals with beautiful team moves. And this one against Kuwait was quite the memorable one, especially given it started right from the back. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu began the move, passing it to Rahul Bheke in a wide left-centre-back spot, allowing Akash Mishra to stretch the field as he bombed forward on the left touchline.
A pinpoint pass from Bheke duly arrived, and Mishra had spotted the run from Lallianzuala Chhangte behind the defence in the left channel and played a first-time pass right into his path. Chhangte didn't have to break stride and sent in a low cross right into the box, with Manvir Singh arriving and beating his marker to stroke it into the net with a first-time finish. Eight seconds from the moment the ball left Bheke's boot, two brilliantly measured first-time passes, four touches of the ball and India had scored a goal that progressed through the length of the pitch.
It's easy to forget that only a few years ago, Stimac began his reign playing long-ball attritional football that had plagued Indian football for decades. Goals like these underline the progress made, but are also feats to be cherished.
Stimac's wealth of options undercut his request for more time
In a crucial FIFA World Cup qualifier, Stimac had the ability to bring on the reigning AIFF Player of the Year, Chhangte, as a substitute. Despite injuries to some crucial first-XI players, the level of the side never dropped and the replacements slotted in with ease. Stimac has always maintained his need for long preparatory camps ahead of important games, with his argument achieving some justification in a poorly organised Asian Games campaign.
Yet, what often goes unnoticed is that Stimac now has a group of 15-16 players who understand his style and are becoming seasoned internationals - able to switch from club football to international football with ease. There is a familiarity with what the Croatian wants on the pitch - and it is not restricted to the first XI.
Sunil Chhetri's major contribution to the game was a decoy run for the goal; Mahesh Singh, India's most consistent and creative player in recent times had a bit of an off day and the ability to swap him out with a tactical tweak (Chhangte running in behind vs Mahesh dropping short) cannot be underestimated.
Apuia and Bheke shored up the defence, while the talent of Anirudh Thapa could also be brought on. Manvir returned to the side in a role that mirrored what is asked of Ashique Kuruniyan (a physical runner/hold-up hybrid) and excelled, goal notwithstanding.
These are players who can expect to make the AFC Asian Cup squad and are well-versed in their roles in the national setup. They seem a fluent outfit, and while things may not look as great against Qatar in a few days, there is enough quality and clarity in the squad to be able to deal with a short camp ahead of the Asian Cup in January.
Home, sweet home
While India's victory owed a large part to their work on the pitch, it was the crowd that definitely had a role to play as well. India's diaspora spreads far and wide in the world and Kuwait was no exception, with plenty of support for the away side in the stands.
The cheers whenever India moved forward in attack were louder than the home support, which reached a crescendo when the goal went in. The Viking clap that reverberated around the Jaber Al-Ahmad International Stadium in Kuwait City after the game could very well have fooled one into thinking this was a home game.
Just witness the scenes after the win -
- Indian Football Team (@IndianFootball) November 16, 2023
Over to the Kalinga in Bhubaneswar now. The might of Qatar awaits, but a raucous home crowd could see another miracle take place.