2022 World Cup Qualifiers, India vs Oman: Similar setting, identical result — Has anything really changed in four years?
There is a lot to work on and Stimac knows his team the best. With limited options, he did what he could. There is no denying that India deserved at least a point.
A slightly tepid evening, a packed stadium, a fresh look team, a new coach and a World Cup qualifier — the setting was all too familiar as India took on Oman at the Indira Gandhi Stadium in Guwahati on Thursday.
And unfortunately, the result, as well, remained identical.
Flashback: 10th June 2015, Sree Kanteerava Stadium
A little over four years earlier, back in June 2015, Bengaluru’s Sree Kanteerava Stadium had hosted India and Oman in the second round of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. It was Stephen Constantine’s third match in charge of the Blue Tigers (his second stint) and the process of rebuilding the squad had just begun.
As the match got underway, the visitors (who were placed 40 ranks above) took control of the match with their fast wing play and incisive passing. Within 25 seconds, they had taken the lead.
They kept on building the pressure while the Indians took some time to settle down. Everyone knew that only a special goal could bring India back in the game and special it was.
It was that man, Sunil Chhetri, who pounced on a loose ball, took it away from his marker with a clever touch and, on the turn, unleashed a powerful left-footer from the top of the box. The ball curled in beautifully to hit the upright before going in to level the scores.
After that equaliser, India gradually started to gain a foothold and began to pass the ball around confidently on the rare occasions they got the possession. However, Oman were too smart a team to drop points against a team who were ranked much below. They took the lead yet again, capitalising on a silly penalty, an error that would come back to haunt the home team.
India almost managed to draw level for the second time. It was the 67th minute and the Men in Blue were getting thoroughly outplayed. They won a rare corner kick, which was executed to perfection. Following some good link up play between Eugeneson Lyngdoh, Dhanpal Ganesh, and CK Vineeth, the ball took a touch of Sallam Al Mukhaini and went into the back of the net.
But even as the celebrations continued, the linesman had raised his flag, deeming that Robin Singh was in an offside position. That match ended 2-1 in favour of the Reds, who, of course, went home with three points.
Cut to 5th September 2019, Indira Gandhi Stadium
India, having climbed up the rankings significantly, faced Oman in their first match of the 2022 World Cup Qualifiers. New coach Igor Stimac has just come in a few months back and the team is in a transitional phase, still acclimatising to the new philosophy.
On paper, Oman had a much better squad but India’s recent performances had invoked renewed hope within the fans.
As was expected, India started the match on the backfoot with Oman pressing high up the pitch. However, 10 minutes into the match and they had managed to shrug the initial jitters and started to take control of the proceedings.
The first chance came Udanta Singh’s way in the 15th minute of the game. Rowllin Borges intercepted a pass in the midfield, played it through for his captain Sunil Chhetri who, in turn, rolled it over to the marauding Udanta down the right.
The young winger took a touch, waited for the defender to make a mistake before unleashing a venomous shot only for the ball to rattle off the crossbar and come back into play. India were this close to taking the lead.
Another spell of great attacking football saw India win a corner. Sandesh Jhingan rose the highest to meet Aniruddh Thapa’s delivery only to see his effort sailing over. Oman were defending as a solid unit but one could sense a goal coming India’s way.
And it did. In the 24th minute, India won a freekick on the left flank, just outside the penalty box. Brandon stepped up to take the set-piece and very cunningly, just rolled the ball into the path of that man, Chhetri. The skipper effortlessly caressed the ball into the net as the entire defence stood watching.
The rest of the first half saw Stimac’s men creating more chances and everything they did during that period set them up towards an impressive 1-0 win. But it wasn’t to be. The Indian players lost the momentum in the final quarter and looked lethargic as they resorted to an overly defensive approach in the second half. Oman’s Al Mandhar found the back of the net twice in the last 10 minutes to break all Indian hearts.
Four years down the line, has anything really changed?
Two dates, four-and-a-half years apart; two teams fighting for a place in the World Cup on both occasions; identical results.
It is bound to raise some questions, the first and foremost being — in four and a half years, has anything really changed in Indian football?
It is a difficult question to answer. Although the scenario is similar, the two teams cannot be compared. For one, the playing styles of the two teams are vastly different.
True, in both games they came this close to a positive result. In fact, if lady luck would have been on their side, they could have secured all three points on both occasions. However, in Bangalore, the Indians were outplayed, outmuscled, ‘outfootballed’ for the most part of the game. On the other hand, in Guwahati, the Indians dominated parts of the match and did not let Oman anywhere near their goal.
India could have started their latest campaign with a win, but it wasn’t to be. Stimac got almost everything right. Assorting to defensive strategies when you are 1-0 up against a stronger team is perhaps the most widely used philosophy in world football. Only, his players started tiring out in the latter stages.
Is the coach to be blamed for that? Or should the league system be? In all top leagues around the world, footballers play at least 40 matches in a season. Their off season lasts two months at the most. In India, on the contrary, the country’s premier league runs for only five months with the footballers spending the remaining seven months holidaying. How will the fitness level go up? How will they compete against stronger teams?
There is a lot to work on and Stimac knows his team the best. With limited options, he did what he could. There is no denying that India deserved at least a point. Maybe, with some luck, they could have got three. But what they did miss out on was a promising start to the campaign.
Can you be happy with a defeat? No. Can you be pleased? Yes. Because, at the end of the day, there is no taking away from the fact that India have made huge strides in Asian football. They managed to fight toe to toe with a West Asian giant like Oman and came out with their heads held high. What more can you ask for?
A lot has changed in four and a half years, a lot.