India coach Igor Stimac aiming for double benefit of experience, team combination from Oman, UAE friendlies
Apart from his team gaining invaluable experiences in the friendlies against Oman and UAE, coach Igor Stimac would be aiming to perfect his team combinations for the upcoming Asian Cup qualifiers.
India's match against Oman would bring an end to their COVID-19 exile from international football that has lasted over a year. In fact, Oman was the last opponent that India played, in November 2019.
Things, however, are going to be a bit different this time around. The November 2019 game was part of the 2022 World Cup qualifiers. The game on Thursday is a friendly. India would play another friendly against UAE on 29 March.
But it's not the November 2019 game that crosses your mind when you think of Oman. It's the September 2019 game when the qualifiers began. India made a strong start, led until 82nd minute thanks to a clever strike from Sunil Chhetri but then Oman's Al Mandhar Al Alawi took the matter in his own hands, scored two and India lost.
The game has crossed head coach Igor Stimac's mind as well.
"When I looked back at earlier matches, I cried a few times. That first match (against Oman) was crucial, that match was going to determine whether we are going to fight for first two positions in [the] group (and qualify for next round)," Stimac said on the eve of the friendly.
"As it happened, with bad luck or inexperience (of players) in such important games, we fell down and that was something I always cry about."
But that's in the past. India and Stimac are looking at the future. The 27-member squad which has been camping in Dubai, where both the friendlies will be played, since 15 March, has a very fresh look.
With nine new first-timers like Akash Mishra, Liston Colaco, Ishan Pandita, Bipin Singh, and Lalengmawia, Stimac has made it clear that he is in search of new regulars for the international team.
He needs new regulars because there's an impending job at hand. The friendlies are a precursor to India's remaining three 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar and AFC Asian Cup 2023 qualifiers which are scheduled to be played in June.
India began the qualifiers on a strong note. They lost the first game against Oman but the football and fight on display were laudable. They then stunned Asian champions Qatar by holding them to a goalless draw. But the next two games, against Bangladesh and Afghanistan, fetched India just two points and that has kept them in the fourth spot in the five-team Group E.
The World Cup qualification was a long shot even at the start of the campaign, so it's better no time is wasted thinking about it. India would want to finish in third to clinch a direct entry into the third round of the Asian Cup qualifiers which avoids the play-off round.
So, how will the friendlies help?
In the FIFA rankings, both Oman (81) and UAE (74) are well ahead of India (104). They belong to the elite group of Asian teams and playing against the best teams gives you the best ideas about your strengths and weaknesses. An Indian football fan must not expect wins here. It's an opportunity for the coach to give his players the best possible exposure.
“Our target — from the beginning, has been to qualify for the AFC Asian Cup (2023). We have three games left in this stage of the Qualifiers. We are trying to provide enough time for the players to put in quality work before those games,” said Stimac.
“I cannot rely on the past. I can select the squad based on past results, but those players need to work hard. We closely monitor them, and then discuss which players fit into the starting XI,” Stimac said.
The young and even the not-so-young who have made the squad for the first time have done so on the back of some eye-catching performances in the recently concluded Indian Super League (ISL). The friendlies should allow Stimac to pick the best players from this lot for the qualifiers in June.
It's no secret that he will use the opportunity to perfect the combinations for his team. It's now up to Mishra to show he can be the left-back for Team India, or for Ashutosh Mehta to prove he can be the right-back. Manvir Singh has the golden opportunity to lead the attack in the absence of Chhetri. Jeakson Singh, Lalengmawia, and Hitesh Sharma will be trying to become permanent figures in the midfield.
India will look to gain some invaluable experience against higher-ranked teams and Stimac would be aiming to finalise his squad for the qualifiers.
India: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Amrinder Singh, Subhashish Roy Chowdhury, Dheeraj Singh, Ashutosh Mehta, Akash Mishra, Pritam Kotal, Sandesh Jhingan, Chinglensana Singh, Adil Khan, Mandar Rao Dessai, Mashoor Shereef, Rowllin Borges, Lalengmawia, Jeakson Singh, Raynier Fernandes, Anirudh Thapa, Bipin Singh, Yasir Mohammad, Suresh Singh, Halicharan Narzary, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Ashique Kuruniyan, Manvir Singh, Ishan Pandita, Hitesh Sharma, Liston Colaco.
The friendly against Oman is on 25 Match (7.15 PM IST), UAE game is on 29 March (9.45 PM IST). The matches will be shown on Eurosport HD.
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