It has been a Jekyll-and-Hyde season so far for India at the 2022 World Cup qualifiers. Clubbed alongside Qatar and Oman, they were never billed favourites to progress to the next round despite Igor Stimac taking charge of the team in May.
The Croatian ingrained a new ideology, scouted a new set of players to fit his system while completely doing away with the safety-first and long-ball approach that was used by predecessor Stephen Constantine.
There were glimpses of promise shown by Stimac and India despite ending up on the wrong side of results during the initial stages, the potential was there to be seen. Expectations of Indian football hopefuls were perhaps fueled by those first 45 minutes against Oman during the opener of the World Cup qualifiers.
It was high pressing, possession-based football that blew Oman away in Guwahati initially as India launched wave after wave of attack. The Blue Tigers were eventually robbed of a victory as Erwin Koeman’s side rallied back to fire two goals at the death. What followed was a memorable trip to Qatar as they held the Asian champions to a goalless draw, becoming the only Asian side to achieve the feat this year.
A promising start to their campaign was met with a huge reality check, securing draws against lower-ranked Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Although India fought back with late equalisers to avoid disastrous defeats, they also dropped massive points, further hampering their qualification chances.
India meet Oman again at the Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex Stadium on Tuesday, but the stakes are much higher for Stimac’s side this time around compared to their opponents –
both who have overseen contrasting fortunes.
The hosts are placed second behind Qatar in Group E and are firmly in the driving seat to qualify for the next round, six points above fourth-placed India. Although Oman are favourites, anything less than a win for India would virtually signal an end to their World Cup dreams.
Big holes to fix in defense
Out of four goals India conceded so far, three have come at the cost of individual errors. In their previous two games against Bangladesh and Afghanistan, the Indian defense has been vulnerable to set-pieces while failing to maintain their shape during counter-attacks.
With more onus on building play from the back, the defensive solidity was already a major concern for Stimac heading of their qualifiers, where they had conceded 13 goals from five games under the Croatian.
But injuries to Rowllin Borges and Sandesh Jhinghan, two experienced stalwarts with excellent ball-playing abilities has further disrupted the defensive balance of the team. Rahul Bheke and Adil Khan have been mainstays in a relatively new backline but both of them still lack adequate experience at the international level.
There has also been uncertainty over the left-back position with both Mandar Rao Dessai and Subashish Bose failing to stake a claim for that role.
The curious case of Sahal Abdul Samad
Dropping Samad is another big call Stimac will need to take with results the topmost priority at the moment. The Kerala midfielder has been a regular starter under Stimac after shining on his debut against Curacao. But his abilities to supply defence-splitting passes, take on defenders and keep play ticking hasn’t come to the fore in the last two games.
Bangladesh nullified Samad’s threat by marking him tightly and cutting the supply of passes to him, leaving the youngster stranded. Even against Afghanistan, Samad misplaced a couple of key passes while also struggling to keep hold of the ball at his feet. Defensively, the fleet-footed playmaker has not been able to offer much.
With Brandon Fernandes set to orchestrate play one again, sacrificing Samad for Anirudh Thapa could be a viable option for Stimac, a combination that worked wonders in their opening game.
Koeman is unlikely to change his set-up against India. Expect them to continue with his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. Abdul Aziz will spearhead their attack while one among Aghbari and Saadi is set to contest for the midfield spot to partner Ahmed Al Mahajri. With plenty of options on the bench, there could also be a few minor tweaks in the attack.
Al-Mandhar Al Alawi, who shattered Indian hearts during the first leg will two late goals, will be the man to watch out for again, having racked up as many as four goals for Oman in their World Cup qualifying campaign.
Stimac could make wholesome changes to his line-up as he hinted previously, following the draw against Afghanistan. Anas Edathodika has returned with the squad after attending the death of his mother but it is still unclear whether he will be drafted directly in the starting XI. If he does start alongside Adil Khan, Pritam Kotal may be relegated to the bench with Bheke being pushed out to right-back.
Brandon Fernandes is likely to keep his place after impressing in the previous two games. Samad may be replaced by Thapa or Manvir Singh, in case Stimac opts to play two strikers upfront.