Sunil Chhetri to lead India one last time in game against Kuwait

Chhetri will retire at the end of this match and aims to ensure that India enters the final-18 stage of the World Cup qualifiers for the first time.

With 94 goals from 150 appearances and a dozen trophies, Chhetri is a bona fide legend of the game. (Photo: Getty Images)

Vivek Mishra

Sunil Chhetri will lead India for the last time in a crucial FIFA World Cup qualifying match against Kuwait on Thursday. Chhetri, 39, hopes to propel his team into the next round as a parting gift after dominating the national football landscape for 19 years.

Chhetri will retire at the end of this match and aims to ensure that India enters the final-18 stage of the World Cup qualifiers for the first time. The top two teams from nine groups of four teams each will advance to the third stage, determining FIFA’s increased allocation of eight World Cup berths for Asia.

While it may be ambitious to imagine India in the 2026 World Cup in North America, a win over Kuwait will take the team into uncharted territory, facing the best of Asia in at least 10 matches. This would also mean some quality friendly games. India, with four points from four games, is currently second in Group A behind Qatar (12 points), ahead of Afghanistan on goal difference and Kuwait, who have three points.

A victory will put India firmly ahead of Afghanistan, who face Qatar in a tough fixture later on Thursday. Afghanistan has a seven-goal deficit against India, and a win against Kuwait will make the equation virtually out of their reach. India will face Qatar, while Afghanistan will take on Kuwait in the final round of fixtures on Tuesday.

For 19 years, Chhetri has carried the footballing hopes of a nation labelled as the ‘sleeping giant’ of world football. With 94 goals from 150 appearances and a dozen trophies, the Indian captain is a bona fide legend of the game. The match venue, where his professional career began with Mohun Bagan in the early 2000s, is expected to host a packed crowd to celebrate Chhetri’s final game.

Chhetri has happy memories against Kuwait, having played a key role in the equaliser by Sahal Abdul Samad that led to a penalty shootout and a 5-4 triumph for India in the 2023 SAFF Championship in Bengaluru. India also defeated Kuwait by a solitary goal from Manvir Singh in their group league opener in November last year, a morale booster for Igor Stimac’s side, who then suffered a 0-3 defeat to Qatar.

India’s recent struggles in the Asian Cup, where they lost all three matches and failed to score, continued in their World Cup qualifiers. They resumed against Afghanistan with a goalless draw and then suffered a 1-2 defeat in Guwahati, conceding a late goal. The team’s inability to finish crucial chances is a significant concern, highlighted by managing just one shot on target compared to Afghanistan’s five in the Guwahati defeat.

Midfielders Anirudh Thapa and Lallianzuala Chhangte failed to make an impact, worsening the situation with ineffective ball control and passing. Goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, the next most experienced player after Chhetri with 71 matches, will need to step up after a penalty concession led to Afghanistan’s winning goal in March.

India has prepared well for this match, with new additions in I-League forwards Edmund Lalrindika (Inter Kashi) and David Lalhlansanga (Mohammedan Sporting), who aim to make national debuts. The defence will have to cope with the absence of Sandesh Jhingan, sidelined due to an injury from the Asian Cup in January. It remains to be seen if Rahul Bheke, Anwar Ali, and Subhasish Bose can compensate for his absence, especially his aerial strength.

Lallianzuala Chhangte, who had a strong 2023-24 ISL season with 10 goals and six assists for Mumbai City FC, will look to carry this form against Kuwait. Kuwait, with the firepower of Hassan Al-Enezi in defence, is coming off a 4-0 victory over Afghanistan, with Shabaib Al Khaldi and Mohammed Daham scoring three goals between them. Mohsen Ghareeb, who performed well in their previous encounter, will be tasked with stopping Chhangte if he starts in the left-back position.