On a night of stoppage-time goals, Seiminlen Doungel leapt highest and his flicked header, off a Brandon Fernandes corner-kick, fetched India a point in Dushanbe when they were two minutes from losing three. “It was my first goal for India,” said Doungel, a 76th minute substitute for right back Pritam Kotal as coach Igor Stimac threw in forwards to cancel Zelfy Narzary’s strike in the first minute of first-half stoppage time that had put Afghanistan ahead.
“It was a tough game for us, having to adjust to the weather and the turf. In the second half, we had lots of attempts,” said 25-year-old from Manipur in a pitchside interview after Thursday’s group E match of the 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asian Cup qualifiers. One of the chances Doungel was referring to came in the 68th minute when, off a Fernandes corner-kick from the left, Sunil Chhetri, left unmarked, had to head into an empty goal from inside the six-yard box.
Possibly because of the bounce on the artificial turf, the man with 72 international goals couldn’t do that. One minute earlier, Udanta Singh tried a looping header that Afghanistan goalkeeper Ovays Azizi flew to his right to keep out. Manvir Singh’s header missed narrowly in the 85th minute and in the 58th minute, Chettri’s header—off a delivery from Kotal—was saved by Azizi. Chasing the game, Stimac had started the second half with Farukh Choudary replacing left back Mandar Rao Dessai. The substitution needed Ashique Kuruniyan to play left back and it was switch he adjusted easily to.
Dessai’s tendency to move up —he is often deployed as a wide midfielder at FC Goa—would drag central defender Adil Khan out of position. Afghanistan kept attacking down the right channel often leading to India conceding set-pieces on their left side—four by the 24th minute. It was from the right that David Najem found Narzary after an Afghan player sold a dummy. Unmarked inside the 18-yard box, Narzary rifled home.
Kuruniyan and Singh kept shifting in to make space for full backs Kotal and Dessai to overlap. Kotal started brightly but India were not getting enough men in the penalty area to make the deliveries count. Barring a 39th minute grounder that India goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu saved, both teams had half-chances but it was Afghanistan who looked more likely to score.
That changed in the second half. Choudhary, added to the squad after a good start to the Indian Super League with Jamshedpur FC, asked questions off the Afghanistan defenders. Manvir Singh’s replacing Sahal Abdul Samad in the 58th minute added to the pressure before Doungel, called up for this game, supplanted Kotal. Against the run of play, Norla Amiri’s shot thudded into Sandhu’s horizontal in the 66th minute.
In four games of this campaign, India have scored thrice, all from set-pieces and all involving Fernandes. Against Oman—whom India play away on Tuesday—it was off his free-kick that Chhetri scored. The rest, including the 88th minute reprieve provided by Adil Khan against Bangladesh, came off corner-kicks. At the Respublikanskiy Stadion, Fernandes had three long-range efforts off target. Even as Stimac was seen remonstrating with the fourth referee seeking more than the allotted five minutes of second-half stoppage time, Fernandes teed up after Doungel had won a corner-kick in the 93rd minute. This time, Fernandes fired in deep from the right and his FC Goa teammate Doungel, playing his first game for India in this campaign, made a leap of faith that averted disaster in Dushanbe.