In their quest for the first win in the FIFA World Cup 2022 qualifiers, India have travelled a long 1600km to Muscat where they will face Oman, currently in the runners-up spot in Group E. So far in the qualifiers, it has been more of the "same old, same old" for India as they have shown glimpses of magic in every game, and yet failed to make the most of it at crucial junctures of play.
As the last international break of the year draws to a close, India would look to end the year on a high after a series of disappointing lows when they have come within touching distance of significant points, but ended up with empty pockets.
Where do India stand in World Cup qualifiers?
Fourth in the Group E standings with just three points courtesy their three draws and one defeat, India started the campaign well with an early goal from Sunil Chettri against Tuesday's opponents at Guwahati and for eighty minutes, it looked like India were on the brink of a historic victory in the World Cup qualifiers, but a brace from Al Mandhar crushed India's hopes. Holding group leaders Qatar to a goalless draw in their own backyard raised expectations of fans and pundits alike, but since then, Igor Stimac's side have crawled their way to two points against Bangladesh and Afghanistan, opposition they should have dispatched easily.
In contrast, Oman head into the game on the back of a ruthless 4-1 victory over Bangladesh " a stark contrast in the fortunes as well as merits of both nations. While Oman, the 84th ranked FIFA nation, are chasing a berth in the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying third round by finishing among the best four runners-up in the qulifiers, India's best hopes rest on making it to the qualifying third round for 2023 Asian Cup as the World Cup qualifiers also double up as the qualifying process for Asian competition.
Is it fair to judge Igor Stimac yet?
Stimac took over the reins from Stephen Constantine in the month of May and while early signs were promising, certain sections of Indian fans are already disillusioned at his selection and a lack of defensive stability in the ranks. India leaked goals in galore at the Intercontinental Cup and the King's Cup, a theme which has continued into the qualifiers, much to the dismay of observers.
The goalless draw at Qatar was a commendable display from the Indian internationals, but in every other game, they have been caught napping at the back. While it is a given that a team of Oman's stature can easily create chances against India as they did in the reverse fixture, it is the propensity of individual errors which has hurt India the most in this qualifying campaign.
The defense, in spite of starting brightly, has tended to switch off towards the end of the halves, as demonstrated by Saad Uddin's goal for Bangladesh at the 42nd minute and Zelfy Nazary's stoppage time goal at the end of the first half in India's match against Afghanistan. Spirited displays have never been a problem for India, for Adil Khan and Seminlen Doungel equalised late into those games, but salvaging a point especially against inferior opposition is just not good enough, considering India's aspirations.
There have not been too many midfield woes, for India has held up well against quality teams, but the lack of goals are concerning. Against Oman, Ashique Kuruniyan was a revelation from the left flank, although it was his Bengaluru FC teammate and skipper Chettri, whose gameplay between the channels, who did the trick for India.
The attack has since looked quite flat and bereft of creative ideas in face of no-nonsense defending from Qatar, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. India are in desperate need of goal-scorers but apart from Chhetri who is amidst a goal drought himself, there are no realistic contenders to lead the line. They say strikers ought to be born, and not simply cultivated but India's inability to bring through able forwards could be catastrophic in future.
While it is known issues which have plagued India in this qualifying campaign, for which a six-month tenure of Stimac cannot be criticized, the Croatian's lack of Plan B when up against stubborn yet inferior opponents does raise doubts.
"We are a unit that passes the ball confidently but we have to keep in mind that we are making too many mistakes and giving away possession. We have to work further on this," Stimac acknowledges, but it remains to be seen whether his side is able to convert those words into action.
What are India's realistic expectations against Oman?
A win will be gargantuan for India's dreams of making it to the third round of the FIFA World Cup qualifiers but only a miraculously splendid display from the Blue Tigers can ensure such a result where they shake off their label of underdogs. From a realistic perspective, India will look to contend Oman just like they did against Qatar, for even a draw will aid India in a step towards Asian Cup qualification.
In football, often moments decide the outcome of a match. Against Oman, perhaps India's biggest challenge will be to take control of their own destiny and ensure they keep composure at those poignant moments which decide games.