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Sunday, Dec 08, 2019

India face uphill task in Muscat

FIFA WORLD CUP QUALIFYING: Igor Stimac’s boys start underdogs against Oman as they seek to keep their dim hopes alive

football Updated: Nov 18, 2019 23:43 IST
Bhargab Sarmah
Bhargab Sarmah
NEW DELHI
Kolkata: Indian football team Captain Sunil Chhetri (C) with teammates pose for photos.
Kolkata: Indian football team Captain Sunil Chhetri (C) with teammates pose for photos.(PTI)
         

When India held Asian champions Qatar to a goalless draw in a Group E World Cup qualifier in Doha just over two months back, head coach Igor Stimac called on his team to remain grounded. “The message to the team is to keep yourself down as it is just a point,” he said at his post-match press conference.

Stimac’s self-restraint despite the shock draw in Doha was not without reason. India were thoroughly outplayed by the hosts, who had 27 attempts at the visitors’ goal, including 13 on target. In comparison, India could only muster two shots, none of them on target. India goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu made 11 saves in that game; his Qatari counterpart made none.

It hasn’t taken long since that game for reality to hit India hard. Two back-to-back 1-1 draws against regional rivals —Bangladesh at home and Afghanistan away—have brought India’s hopes of progressing to the next World Cup qualifying round crashing down. As India prepare to take on Erwin Koeman-coached Oman in Muscat on Tuesday, expectations have been tempered down. India are already six points behind second-placed Oman, and with four games left, a loss here will bring India’s World Cup dream to another premature end. As things stand, finishing third in the five team group, thereby securing direct passage to the next round of the Asian Cup qualifiers, looks to be India’s best bet. Even that is easier said than done, with Afghanistan one point ahead of fourth-placed India and Bangladesh two behind.

Poor performance at this stage is hardly a surprise given the fact that India have never managed to make it to the final qualifying round in Asia. In the previous edition of qualifiers, India finished last in their group with one win and seven defeats in eight games.

Since that disastrous qualifying round, however, India have been on an upward curve. Comfortable qualification to the 2019 Asian Cup and a huge leap in the FIFA rankings under Stephen Constantine, who had taken charge just prior to the World Cup qualifiers, have set Stimac up against higher expectations in India.

Draws against Bangladesh and Afghanistan haven’t helped his cause. But more than the results, it is the way India have performed that gives Stimac cause for some serious concern. In both games, India required late equalisers from set-piece routines to salvage a point each and survived moments where the opposition had chances to double their lead at 1-0. While his team was forced into a conservative approach against the far superior Qatari side, India struggled for creativity against Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

In fact, all three of India’s goals in this qualifying campaign have come from set piece routines taken by midfielder Brandon Fernandes. Against Oman, skipper Sunil Chhetri scored from Fernandes’s clever grounded pass from a free kick and against Bangladesh and Afghanistan, Adil Khan and Seiminlen Doungel, respectively, scored off his corners. It is hardly an encouraging statistic but there are still a few positives.

In recent years, starting with the second half of Constantine’s last stint, India have tended to be comfortable playing a defensive low block and targeting technically superior teams on the counter. That approach has reaped India a few rewards—for instance, goalless draws in friendlies against China and Oman, and, most notably, a 4-1 win over Thailand in the Asian Cup. However, India have also often run out of steam and conceded late goals this year against stronger opposition. Bahrain knocked India out through a late penalty at the Asian Cup and Oman themselves scored two late goals in Guwahati to win the opening fixture of this qualifying round. At the Intercontinental Cup in Ahmedabad, four of the 10 goals India conceded in their three games came after the 70-minute mark.

ANAS BACK

Stimac has also received a boost following the return of experienced centre back Anas Edathodika, who has joined the team back despite recently suffering a personal tragedy. Edathodika had returned home before the game against Afghanistan after the death of his mother. With defender Sandesh Jhingan and midfielders Rowllin Borges and Amarjit Singh out due to injury, Stimac has welcomed Anas’s return. “I have players like him in our team and I’m proud of them. His return boosts the team,” he said in his pre-match press conference on Monday.

It will be interesting to see if Edathodika is brought straight back to the starting line-up against a team possessing a formidable offence.

Al-Mandhar Al Alawi, whose late brace broke Indian hearts in Guwahati in September, has scored in three of Oman’s four qualifying games so far, and will once again be a key part of the hosts’ attack. However, he won’t be the only danger man, as is evident from the 10 goals Oman have score in their four games. “Oman are much better now than the team we played against in Guwahati,” Stimac said of his opponents.

It also remains to be seen whether Stimac shuffles his line-up after the disappointing performance against Afghanistan in Dushanbe. “I have enough players in my disposal and I’m not afraid to put an all-new team against Oman,” he had said after last Thursday’s draw.

A tweak in the forward line of Chhetri, Udanta Singh and Ashique Kuruniyan is still unlikely. Udanta and Kuruniyan have complemented Chhetri well from the flanks so far, and against Oman, pace from wings could be key to India finding a few fault lines in Oman’s defence. However, Stimac could make a few changes in his midfield, with Anirudh Thapa particularly in contention for a starting spot after not featuring against Afghanistan.

That could mean either or both of defensive midfielder Pronay Halder and creative outlet Sahal Abdul Samad being relegated to the bench, although Fernandes is almost certain to keep his place.