India coach Igor Stimac recognised before India's opening 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers match against Oman how tough a task it would be. The Croatian announced that his team will "give everything on the pitch, aiming to win it."
And they gave everything but couldn't prevent a narrow loss to the 87th-ranked team. India took the lead in the match with Sunil Chhetri netting his 72nd international goal but Oman rallied back with two late goals in the last 10 minutes to win 2-1.
India's group also includes Qatar, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. World Cup hosts Qatar are already guaranteed a spot, and finishing second in the group would take the team to the third round of qualifying. The biggest contenders for the second spot are Oman.
India have never defeated the Middle Eastern nation in a FIFA-recognised match. They lost both their matches against Oman at the same stage during the qualification for the 2018 World Cup.
Above all, India came into the match with the players in the middle of the off-season. It's a fact that Stimac had rued on multiple occasions ahead of the qualifiers. The only action that Stimac and his boys have experienced during this close season has been the five matches that Blue Tigers played over two tournaments — King's Cup and Intercontinental Cup.
Still, to give themselves the best shot, India needed to chip away points off Oman. And despite all the lull since the domestic season got over in March, India's players got off the blocks like a V8 engine, zooming past Omanis through the empty spaces. India's first-half approach was all guns blazing, just how they surprised their opponents in the Asian Cup.
The return of Ashique Kuruniyan provided India with extra impetus going forward. The Malappuram born attacker was the perfect foil for Chhetri, dropping behind the striker when India lost the ball and taking up the leading position from the left flank on counter-attacks. And it was a late challenge on Kuruniyan on left edge of the box that led to the first goal. Brandon Fernandes drilled a grounded kick into the box as Chhetri converted with perfect execution off the training ground setup.
What impressed most was how India denied Oman empty spaces while keeping a high line and mixed their play excellently with short and long balls. The tempo, obviously, came down as the game progressed and Oman grew into the game eventually. However, India successfully managed to maintain their defensive shape for the most part of the match. Any other emergencies were expertly and heroically thwarted away by the safe hands of Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.
However, familiar problems returned in the closing minutes. Fatigue started to take over and Rahul Bheke, who so far has had a horrific outing in an Indian shirt since making his debut earlier this year, was guilty on both occasions as Al Mandhar got past him to score a brace and inspire a comeback win.
To Oman's credit, they made use of the experience and quality to make the telling difference. To Stimac's credit, he got his starting XI next to perfection. Many would have expected Sahal Abdul Samad, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Pritam Kotal to start but the 52-year-old had been using the previous games to experiment and feel his best XI. With some of the sure starters still out, Stimac picked the best mix which provided him the almost the perfect result.
Midfielders Udanta Singh and Fernandes worked their socks off to track back and help the defenders, keeping the slate clean for an extended period. Adil Khan's vulnerability was largely masked by midfield linchpins Anirudh Thapa and Rowliin Borges, who made multiple interceptions and distorted Oman's build-ups regularly. Bheke, though, could become the casualty for playing XI role in the next match.
India have managed to score first in four out of six matches under Stimac but have tasted victory only once. Two matches have ended in defeats. And that's where India must improve. The lack of competitive action in recent months and its impact on fitness could be a possible excuse but there's a pressing need for Blue Tigers to learn the art of closing out matches, especially when the opportunities in qualifiers shrink with every negative result.
Along with that, India also need to start taking most of their chances. The margins at the elite level are pretty slim. Udanta hit the post while Sandhesh Jhingan skied his header over the bar after getting into a great position before the first goal came. Opportunities went begging even after that.
Stimac was full of praise for his boys after the match. "I could not have asked for anything more from my boys," said the coach.
But before the effusive words, Stimac also added the regret: "We dominated the first half. We created many chances and could have killed the game in the first half. Not lucky with shots."
And that's what India need to do. They need to take their chances early on as it becomes tough for them to sustain the neck-breaking tempo. Hopefully, the return of sure starters would also enable to close out games.
It was a memorable night for the followers in Guwahati. The team needs to build on the positives. And we would soon find out how they do that. The second qualifier match against Qatar is just five days away.
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Updated Date: Sep 06, 2019 09:28:45 IST