India’s 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying hopes were all but ended on Tuesday after Igor Stimac’s men succumbed to a 1-0 loss in Muscat to Oman. In many ways, India's qualifying campaign was encapsulated in Tuesday's loss — Defensive chaos, unfortunate injuries, a clunky midfield and a misfiring forward line.
Igor Stimac made three changes to the side that drew 1-1 against Afghanistan in the last match. Nishu Kumar replaced Pritam Kotal at right-back, Ashique Kuruniyan was switched from the left wing to replace Mandar Rao Dessai at left-back. Farukh Chaudhary and Manvir Singh also came into the side with Sahal Abdul Samad joining Anirudh Thapa on the bench.
India got off to a bad start when Oman were awarded a penalty in the fifth minute. Rahul Bheke, often criticised for his defending, did no favours to himself as he stumbled to the ground trying to hold back Muhsen Al-Ghassani and ended up clattering into the Oman attacker. The referee couldn’t have awarded an easier penalty. Bheke was saved the blushes after Al-Ghassani stepped up and launched his spot-kick into the stands.
India were dealt a blow in the 28th minute when Pranoy Halder had to be replaced due to an injury. To compound India’s misery, his replacement Vinit Rai, lost the ball in a dangerous position to gift Oman the breakthrough. Rai was sold short by a Brandon Fernandes pass and the youngster saw himself stripped off the ball by Mohsin Al-Khaldi. The Oman No 10 split the Indian backline with a delightful through ball and Al-Ghassani made up for his penalty miss with a first-time shot past a static Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. India can moan the fact that Al-Ghassani might have been offside, but that won’t paper over the fact that India barely did anything to deserve a win.
India and Stimac were dealt another blow when Adil Khan went down clutching his thigh in the 37th minute. Anas Edathodika replaced the Hyderabad FC defender and inside 40 minutes, Stimac had been forced to make two substitutions. By the end of the match, Stimac would lose another centre back, Rahul Bheke, through injury. Stimac had already been hamstrung by injuries to Sandesh Jhingan, Rowllin Borges and Amarjit Singh. Tuesday's new set would only frustrate him further.
Having taken the lead, Oman decided to sit back and protect their lead. To say that the tactic worked would be an understatement as captain and goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi didn't even have to make a save in the match.
Captain Sunil Chhetri, the man who India have come to rely on for goals, has been going through a lean phase in front of goal, which, unfortunately, continued on Tuesday. Playing in the hole, Oman nullified Chhetri’s threat by marking him closely. The skipper was forced to drop down deep to get the ball taking him away from his favoured position.
Manvir Singh was decent in holding the ball up but he rarely got the ball inside the Oman box. Udanta Singh has often been a frustrating figure on the right, a contrast to his displays in the Blue of Bengaluru. Farukh Chaudhary, though started on the left, was often forced to track back and cover for Ashique.
Even India’s set-piece play was out of sync in Muscat. India have relied on set-pieces for goals under Stimac with both the equalisers against Bangladesh and Afghanistan coming through corners. That wasn’t the case on Tuesday. Brandon’s delivery was lacking and India were overpowered by the more physically strong Omani defenders.
Oman could have won the match by a two or three-goal margin if not for two good saves from Gurpreet in the second half. In the end, a 1-0 loss with an injury-hit squad seems a fair result.
On paper, a run of one win, four draws and five defeats looks pretty bad for any manager. However, Stimac’s opening 10 matches need to be taken in with some context. The Croatian is overseeing a shift in the style of play with a young and inexperienced squad. That he took over the reins in the middle of the off-season hasn’t helped him one bit. In fact, Tuesday’s match was Stimac’s first one after the Indian Super League season begun. Injuries to key personnel has only made Stimac’s job tougher. Despite all these factors, Stimac has helped India to embrace an attacking style of play, marshalled by the likes of Sahal, Ashique, Brandon and Manvir. Hopefully, he could get a full-strength squad for Qatar's visit next year.
India still have a mathematical chance of making it to the next round of qualification if they win all their remaining matches and Oman lose all of theirs. That, however, seems very unlikely.
To win matches, you need to score goals, something which India have found difficult to do so far. In their four matches, India have scored a grand total of three goals, two of which came while India were toiling to escape with a draw.
India’s next target will be to finish third in the group and qualify for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup. The Blue Tigers are currently fourth in the group with three points from four matches. Afghanistan are third with four points while Bangladesh prop up the group with their solitary point. India host Qatar in March before playing Afghanistan and Bangladesh in June. Another draw against Qatar followed by victories against the two comparatively weaker sides would be enough to take them to the Asian Cup qualifying third round.
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Updated Date: Nov 20, 2019 13:38:02 IST