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Sunil Chhetri's last dance: Can India secure its maiden FIFA WC qualifiers berth in clash against Kuwait?

The 39-year-old Sunil Chhetri will retire after India's FIFA World Cup 2026 qualifiers against Kuwait on Thursday and will aim to ensure the team reaches the final-18 stage of mega event for the first time.

football Sunil Chhetri's last dance: Can India secure its maiden FIFA WC qualifiers berth in clash against Kuwait snt
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First Published Jun 5, 2024, 3:17 PM IST

Emotions will run high as the iconic Sunil Chhetri leads India one final time in a crucial FIFA World Cup 2026 qualifying match against Kuwait in Kolkata on Thursday. Hoping to propel his team into the next round, this match serves as a parting gift after Chhetri's 19-year dominance in Indian football.

The 39-year-old Chhetri will retire after this match and aims to ensure India reaches the final-18 stage of the World Cup qualifiers for the first time. The top two teams from each of the nine groups of four will advance to the third stage, which will determine FIFA's increased allocation of eight World Cup spots for Asia.

While it may seem ambitious to picture India in the 2026 World Cup in North America, a win over Kuwait would mark a significant milestone, propelling the team into uncharted territory and setting them against Asia's best in at least 10 matches. This achievement would also open doors for quality friendly games.

Currently occupying the second spot in Group A with four points from four games, India trails behind Qatar (12 points) and sits ahead of Afghanistan on goal difference, with Kuwait trailing behind with three points.

A victory against Kuwait would firmly place India ahead of Afghanistan, whose chances would diminish further if they fail to secure a win against Qatar in their upcoming match.

With a seven-goal deficit against India, Afghanistan's hopes would be virtually out of reach if India secures a win against Kuwait.

In the final round fixtures, India will face Qatar while Afghanistan takes on Kuwait.

For 19 years, Sunil Chhetri has carried the hopes of a nation often labeled as the 'sleeping giant' of world football.

With 94 goals from 150 appearances and a collection of a dozen trophies, Sunil Chhetri stands as a true legend of Indian football. As he prepares for his final game, emotions will run high at the venue where his illustrious professional career began with Mohun Bagan in the early 2000s.

A packed crowd is anticipated at the Salt Lake Stadium to bid farewell to Chhetri as he takes his last steps on the field.

Chhetri holds fond memories against Kuwait, notably contributing to India's victory in the 2023 SAFF Championship with a crucial equalizer by Sahal Abdul Samad, leading to a dramatic penalty shootout triumph.

India's previous victory over Kuwait, secured by a solitary goal from Manvir Singh in their away fixture last November, serves as a morale boost for Igor Stimac's side, despite subsequent setbacks, including a 0-3 loss to Qatar and a disappointing Asian Cup campaign where they failed to score a single goal.

The struggles continued against Afghanistan, with India unable to find the net in a goalless draw. In their home match in Guwahati, they suffered a 1-2 defeat, conceding a late goal to their South Asian neighbors, further highlighting the challenges facing the national team.

The recurring issue of failing to convert scoring opportunities raises concerns about India's ability to capitalize on crucial moments, reflecting deeper issues within the team.

India's shortcomings were glaringly evident in their match against Afghanistan, managing just one shot on target compared to Afghanistan's five in the shocking 1-2 defeat in Guwahati.

Midfielders Anirudh Thapa and Lallianzuala Chhangte struggled to make an impact, exacerbating the issue. Their lack of creativity and precision, compounded by ineffective ball control and passing, contributed to India's woes.

In goal, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, with 71 matches under his belt, the next most experienced after Chhetri, will need to step up. A communication lapse led to a penalty concession and Afghanistan's winning goal in March.

However, India enters this match with thorough preparation. Notable additions from the I-League include forwards Edmund Lalrindika (Inter Kashi) and David Lalhlansanga (Mohammedan Sporting), aiming to become the first players in five years to make national debuts from the second tier league.

The absence of Sandesh Jhingan, sidelined due to injury since the Asian Cup in January, leaves a void in defense. It remains to be seen if players like Rahul Bheke, Anwar Ali, and Subhasish Bose can compensate, particularly in aerial strength, a trait Jhingan has provided over the years.

Attention also falls on Lallianzuala Chhangte, following a strong 2023-24 ISL season with Mumbai City FC, where he scored 10 goals and provided six assists. He aims to carry this form against Kuwait, who boast defensive prowess in Hassan Al-Enezi.

Kuwait, entering the game after a 4-0 victory over Afghanistan, rely on their key forwards Shabaib Al Khaldi and Mohammed Daham, who collectively scored three goals in their previous match. Additionally, Mohsen Ghareeb, performing well in past encounters, will be tasked with thwarting Chhangte, especially if he starts in the left-back position.

Squads:

India: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu (GK); Nikhil Poojary, Subhasish Bose, Anwar Ali, Jay Gupta; Jeakson Singh, Anirudh Thapa; Naorem Mahesh Singh, Brandon Fernandes, Lallianzuala Chhangte; Sunil Chhetri.

Kuwait: Sulaiman Abdulghafour (GK); Rashed Al-Dosary, Khalid El Ebrahim, Hassan Al-Enezi, Salman Bormeya; Eid Al-Rasheedi; Hamad Al-Harbi, Faisal Zayed, Azbi Shehab, Mohammad Daham; Yousef Nasser.

Kickoff: 7pm.

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