A lot has changed since India’s previous match against Oman two months ago. Heading into that tie, the campaign opener, in Guwahati, India were brimming with confidence on the back of some eye-catching results. That belief reflected in the way the team challenged a shaky Oman, troubling them with their pacey counter-attacks and coming closer than ever to beating them.
But when the two teams line up for the return leg in Muscat on Tuesday, the circumstances could not have been more different. Oman are pushing Qatar in the race for the top spot in Group E, winning three out of the four matches.
India, on the other hand, are yet to win even one match (3 draws and 1 defeat). And the back-to-back draws against Bangladesh and Afghanistan have taken away whatever little momentum and optimism there was after they stole a point against Asian champions Qatar.
If complacency was India’s undoing against Bangladesh last month, coach Igor Stimac has had to deal with injuries and out-of-form players in this doubleheader away from home.
Against Afghanistan, Stimac was forced to field a make-shift back-line (Ashique Kuruniyan, a forward, was played as a left-back) because of an injury to Sandesh Jhingan and a family emergency for fellow centre-back Anas Edathodika, who had to fly home. Edathodika has joined the team in Muscat. But his match fitness remains a question.
While the focus will be on India’s defence, Stimac will hope for the midfield to step up. India were guilty of making one mistake too many in the midfield, thus surrendering the possession too cheaply, in the matches against Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Consequently, they never were able to assert themselves against the two lower-ranked opponents, which ultimately cost India victories in two seemingly winnable matches.
Stimac mixed things up against Afghanistan by benching Anirudh Thapa and playing Pronay Halder while also giving a runaround to Len Doungel, whose goal saved India of embarrassment against Afghanistan. Whether the Croatian coach sticks to the same combination, or is tempted to exploit Thapa’s playmaking abilities, remains to be seen.
Stimac has so far done little wrong in his player selections as well as substitutions. Against Oman, however, he will have to find the right balance between speed and strength.
Oman’s physical superiority
Oman play with a lot of pace and enjoy a physical superiority over the Indians. In the previous encounter, India troubled Oman till the time they played at a high-intensity. The moment India sat back, Oman dictated the game and played at a pace that was very tough for India to match.
Rabia Al Mandhar, Mohsin Johar, Muhsen al Ghassani and Arshad al Alawi have been at the centre of most attacking moves Oman have created in this campaign. “They are quick, they switch positions fast and can score from long. We have to be extra cautious of their long-range shots,” defender Pritam Kotal said.
Tuesday’s match will be crucial for India keeping in mind their future commitments. An upset win will certainly keep India in the hunt for a next round berth. A loss, however, will virtually send India out of reckoning as far as the 2022 World Cup qualification is concerned and a direct spot in the 2023 Asian Cup. If India lose, they will trail Oman by nine points and have only three matches — maximum nine points — left to play in this second round of the qualifiers.
Even the runner-up sides from the eight groups are not guaranteed an automatic spot in the third round of the qualifiers. A draw against Oman will also make it difficult for India to qualify for the next round. Their last three matches — all to be played next year — are against Qatar (at home on March 26), Bangladesh (away, June 4) and Afghanistan (at home, June 9).
But getting a least a point against Oman may prove crucial as it will make it easier for India to get an automatic third round berth for the 2023 Asian Cup qualifiers. Stimac, however, knows it will be a mammoth task for his team. “Oman are much better now than the team we played against in Guwahati. They are the favourites. We know for a fact that match is going to be very difficult for us,” he said.
(Oman vs India, Live on Star Sports Network, 8.30pm)