Indian football team take on Oman in the first game of the Asian qualifiers for the 2022 Fifa World Cup in Guwahati on Thursday. This is the biggest match so far for The Blue Tigers under new coach Igor Stimac who took charge of the national team in May earlier this year.
India have never made it past the first stage in the World Cup qualifiers and their chances of making their first bow in the final round of World Cup qualifiers rest heavily on their result against Oman at home.
With Asian champions Qatar firm favourites to take top spot in Group E, India will have to finish above Oman to have any chances of making it to the next round that also ensures qualification for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup.
Oman (87) who are ranked higher than India (103) in the Fifa rankings also go into the game with a new coach at the helm – Dutchman Erwin Koeman, the elder brother of Netherlands manager Ronald Koeman.
The former Galatasaray manager has been in charge of just three games so far. However, there are similarities in the way Koeman wants his team to play with Stimac’s philosophy. Both managers prefer a 4-2-3-1 system that provides greater control in central midfield area.
While Oman start favourites in the encounter, India will look to make the most of their home advantage. However, for India to succeed and claim all three points against Oman, they’ll have to win the following key battles on the pitch.
Vinit Rai vs Ahmed Kano
Stimac has used a wide range of players in the central defensive midfield role, but none have looked more assured in that position than young Vinit Rai. With Amarjit Singh Kiyam injured, Rai is likely to play in the double pivot in central midfield.
A defensive midfielder, Rai will perhaps have the biggest task on hand: to stop Oman’s captain Ahmed Mubarak Al Mahaijri, better known as Ahmed Kano. The attacking midfielder plays in the No 10 role and is Oman’s chief attacking threat.
Kano is a veteran of 169 national team appearances and has already scored three goals in five games for Oman this year. Rai will have to track his forays into the Indian box and ensure he is not afforded too much space in the Indian final third.
It remains unclear whether Stimac will pair Rai with Anirudh Thapa or Rowlin Borges. Rai’s experience of playing in Stimac’s system would make him a key figure in the middle of the park for India. If Rai manages to keep Kano quiet, India would have taken a big step towards a positive result in the game.
Sunil Chhetri vs Mohammed Saleh Al Musalami
Sunil Chhetri remains India’s chief goal threat. In big games, India’s fortunes largely depend on their talisman’s form in front of goal. Under Stimac, Chhetri has often been used as a centre forward instead of a No 10.
While the 35-year-old doesn’t have the raw pace to run behind defences, his hold-up play, ability to link with midfield runners and the quality in tight spaces makes him a handful for any defence he plays against. To add to it, his top-class finishing and dead-ball abilities make him a real threat for Oman.
His contest with Oman’s most experienced centre-back Al Musalami will be an intriguing battle. The experienced defender who has made 83 appearances for the national team will have to deal with Chhetri’s movement on the field.
The Indian captain is likely to drop deep into a No 10 role during the game allowing the likes of Lallianzuala Chhangte, Anirudh Thapa and Sahal Abdul to make runs in the space he vacates. Al Musalami will have to make sure he doesn’t get dragged out of position too often in a bid to remain tight on Chhetri, while also guarding against his late runs inside the box when the Indian skipper does drop deep. If Chhetri wins this battle, India are likely to have a big say in the contest.
Rahul Bheke vs Abdul Aziz Al Muqbali
Rahul Bheke made his long overdue national debut under Stimac, but hasn’t had the best of times in the Indian rearguard. Played either as a right-back or centre-back, Bheke has been prone to errors.
Against Oman, he is likely to partner Sandesh Jhingan in central defence. Bheke struggled with his positioning in the Intercontinental Cup, but the presence of a defensive marshal in Jhingan should help him out against Oman.
The Oman forwards are likely to target Bheke and he will have to be at his best to keep the Oman striker Al Muqbali quiet. The Oman striker has got on the scoresheet on two occasions this year under Koeman and is likely to spearhead their attack in Guwahati.
Bheke aerial prowess will come in handy against Al Muqbali, but the Indian defender will have to maintain his concentration throughout the ninety minutes.
India are expected to be under pressure for long periods in the contest and their centre-backs would need to have a good game for them to have a chance of winning. With Bheke being the potential weak link in the Indian defence, his battle against Al Muqbali will be very crucial.
Anirudh Thapa vs Moataz Saleh
The young Anirudh Thapa has nailed his place in the Indian team. Having become a mainstay in the team under former coach Stephen Constantine, Thapa has managed to earn the faith of Stimac who has achieved better results when the diminutive midfielder has been on the field.
Thapa’s energy was a key element in India’s good show in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup and Stimac will once again rely on his tenacity and passing ability to make India’s midfield tick.
He will be up against 23-year-old Oman midfielder Moataz Saleh whose national team career has followed a similar trajectory. He grew in prominence at the Asian Cup during Oman’s run to the Round of 16.
This battle could decide who has greater control in the middle of the park and considering the importance of central midfield in the two coaches’ systems, it could very well decide the contest.
Lallianzuala Chhangte vs Saad Suhail Al Mukhaini
Chhangte has been one of the standout players under Stimac. He has put in impressive displays on the left flank and made a big impact after coming on against North Korea. He didn’t just score a goal in the game but his lightning pace and movement caused all sorts of problems for the Korean defence.
He will be up against a real veteran in right-back Al Mukhaini who has 107 national team appearances to his name. He is one of Oman’s all-time greats and has occupied a position in Oman’s rearguard for almost 10 years.
Al Mukhaini can play across the defence but has been deployed in the left-back position in recent years. In 2012, he gave a trial at Arsenal.
However, the 31-year-old Al Mukhaini will have his task cut out against Chhangte who is a clever customer. The new Chennaiyin FC recruit likes to drift inside and play as a narrow forward while also relishing a sprint down the flanks.
Chhangte has a goal or two in him and likes to make inward runs from the flanks making Al Mukhaini’s task of containing him a bit more difficult.
This may not be the decisive battle but Chhangte’s exuberance against Al Mukhaini’s experience could turn out to be a mouth-watering contest.