Across Manvir Singh’s football career coaches have chosen to value his towering presence in an Indian team usually devoid of height. When Igor Stimac raised the issue of the lack of height his boys were going to suffer from against Kuwait in their first World Cup qualifier Round 2 game on the road, Manvir was once again the band-aid that would have to be applied.
— Indian Football Team (@IndianFootball) November 16, 2023
On late Thursday night, the Mohun Bagan forward was the holding man for the forward line and gave India the only goal of the game to make a winning start to their Fifa 2026 World Cup qualification campaign.
Almost like home
Of all the expatriate communities in Kuwait, India’s numbers of just under 10 lakh people living in the Middle East country is the largest demographic of immigrants. That demographic represented itself over the Kuwaiti fans, who were outcheered by the Indians present at the 60,000-seater Jaber Al-Ahmad International Stadium. Those cheers became loud when India had the ball and even louder when Sahal Abdul Samad, the Indian attacking midfielder who played his formative years in Kuwait, had the ball.
This was the third time both teams were meeting this year, with the first clash between the two known for its quality and the second for the fiery battles that ended with India winning a penalty shootout to take the SAFF Cup. Sunday was a lot more lacklustre with Kuwait taking control for large parts of the game but never really threatening Gurpreet Singh’s goal and India managing to control any forays from their opponents but not showing the technical acumen to keep a hold of the ball and string quality passes together.
The first half saw a solitary chance for India where a Nikhil Poojary cutback was skied by skipper Sunil Chhetri over the crossbar. The chance was created out of yet another Indian high-press, a way of playing that was borne and bettered over the first half of this year and has become a constant of the national team.
Kuwait began the second half brighter, but that burst of impetus died a quick death. While they were good in keeping the ball, they were poor with what they did with it. Cramps started to build within their legs and suddenly India were in with time on the clock ticking down and the opportunity to steal a late goal.
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Soon that chance came in the 75th minute. A run on the left flank from Akash Mishra saw him glide past the Kuwaiti midfield and produce a pass for Lallianzuala Chhangte. The Mizoram winger, who usually plays out of the right and was brought on as a substitute, threaded a ball into the middle of the Kuwait box. Manvir, who had just that one step on left-back Sultan Al-Enezi, lifted his left foot and guided the ball into the near post of Abdulrahman Kameel to mark a return to the national setup.
Weeks ago this win was looking unlikely. Anwar Ali, a central defender who assures calm on the ball and Jeakson Singh, a metronome of a passer who would rarely give the ball away, were both injured and out. Crucial to how this Indian team plays, and the lack of depth in similar players meant this would have to be a hard-fought game.
India came out with a win that gives them a cushion further into the group. They next face the defending Asian Champions Qatar at home in Bhubaneswar. Qatar defeated Afghanistan, the other member of Group A, 8-1 in an earlier match on Thursday. India now faces that challenging Qatar test in another four days.