Four hundred and ninety two days.

It’s been a long time since the Indian men’s football team last played a competitive match as the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted the international calendar in Asia.

For Igor Stimac and his men, the postponement of the Fifa World Cup and AFC Asian Cup Joint qualifiers against Qatar and Bangladesh in March 2020 would have come as a bit of a relief. The team had suffered three underwhelming results that had virtually ended their chances of reaching the second round of the World Cup qualifiers and made their bid to reach the 2023 AFC Asian Cup a lot trickier.

But with the Blue Tigers missing out on a chance to return to the field for a much longer period than expected, it has provided the Croatian with a clean slate, almost a fresh start as he puts it.

Starting from scratch

“We were planning a lot of things last year like change in the scheduling of season, more games, Super Cup but the pandemic has destroyed everything. The team also has to start from scratch though the players have played in ISL. International matches are altogether different,” Stimac told reporters ahead of the game during an online press conference.

The Indian football team hasn’t enjoyed the best of times under Stimac as they have only won one out of the ten matches since he took charge in May 2019 and are currently winless in eight straight matches.

The long gap between matches has allowed him to reflect on the matches he was in charge of and the feeling largely has been that of frustration for the former Croatia manager.

“When I looked back at earlier matches, I cried a few times. 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,” Stimac said.

“We were not effective as a team to score enough goals. We played good football, created chances but didn’t do enough to put them away. At times, we were also not ready to play 90-95 minutes in games of this intensity,” he added.

Faith in youth

Stimac’s selection of a number of fresh, young players is based largely on their performances in the recently-concluded Indian Super League season and may give a peek into his thought process. He is keen to pick players based on current form with not a lot of emphasis on the past games under his tenure. He is probably looking at new players to bring him the results that some of the players in his previous teams couldn’t.

“When I became the national team coach, I even mentioned to Sunil (Chhetri) that he also needs to fight for his position. This fight goes on forever. Without this continuous fight, there is no success,” Stimac said.

“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,” he added.

India will be without captain Sunil Chhetri for the game against Oman and also for the match against UAE on March 29 as he is recovering from Covid-19. The 36-year-old has been India’s go-to man for goals in recent years and the team clearly struggles to carry a threat in his absence.

Stimac isn’t blessed with too many options on this front as Indian forwards have struggled to nail down a starting berth for themselves in their respective ISL teams, a fact that the coach continues to bemoan.

“The best (scenario) for Indian football would be if we have eleven players with Indian origin playing as strikers for ISL teams. The last season of ISL showed that teams must trust Indian players more. Hyderabad FC did that and they played some of the best football,” the Croatian said.

However, Stimac has decided to place his faith in youth picking a squad with an average age of 24 that has 12 players who are below the age of 25.

He has said that the youngsters will be given ample chances to prove themselves and they should play free and fearless football.

“We need to come to the pitch without any fear, we need to try to make our transitions properly, and we need to try and enjoy the possession that we have. That’s what I want to ask of my players,” Stimac had said ahead of the camp in Dubai.

The onus of leading the group will be on the shoulders of experienced players like Sandesh Jhingan, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Pritam Kotal, Rowllin Borges and Anirudh Thapa.

New faces like Akash Mishra, Liston Colaco, Ishan Pandita, Bipin Singh and Lalengmawia, who made a real impact in the ISL this season, would be hoping to translate their form on the international stage.

Formidable Oman

However, against a formidable Oman side who beat India twice in the World Cup qualifiers, the youngsters will be tested. The Blue Tigers have never beaten Oman in eleven meetings, having lost on nine occasions.

Stimac though will take heart from the fact that the last two matches against Oman were extremely close affairs that could have gone India’s way . The two teams had played out a goalless draw the last time they met in Dubai ahead of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.

Oman, however, have since changed their manager and are now managed by Stimac’s compatriot Branko Ivankovic who guided Iran to the 2006 Fifa World Cup in Germany.

“My good friend Branko is with Oman now. He is a great coach. He has already coached top teams like Iran in the World Cup, and has won important trophies in his career. We both know each other well,” Stimac said.

“We have seen Oman play against Jordan (on March 20), and we are confident. They are a patient but a physical side, and do not take a lot of risks. We need to find a way to do well against their style of play,” he added.

Oman are ranked 81st in the Fifa charts, 23 places above the Blue Tigers. Ivankovic’s men have had a game more than India in recent times having played out a goalless draw against Jordan on Saturday.

Stimac may not have had the best of starts as India head coach but the Covid-19 interruption has offered him a chance to relaunch his tenure with a much better understanding of Indian football. It will not be easy against Oman and UAE, but his new-look, youthful team will be keen to prove a point.

Match Starts at 7.15 pm IST; to be telecast live on Eurosport.

With PTI inputs