India seek to play fearless football against Oman in first international after COVID-19 lockdown

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Dubai, Mar 24 (PTI) Talismanic captain Sunil Chhetri will not be there to inspire but a young Indian team will seek to play fearless football against a more fancied Oman in its first international match in more than a year here on Thursday.

Chhetri is not with the team for the two international friendlies here -- the second one against the UAE on Monday -- as he is recovering from COVID-19.

But the side with an average age of just over 24 is raring to go in its first international match after November 2019 and many of them have done well in the recent Indian Super League for their respective franchises.

Head coach Igor Stimac said he has told the players to play free and fearless football as he was not expecting much from these two matches.

'We wanted to give them the experience of playing stronger teams, that will give them more confidence and fearlessness in future. I have told them there should not be any pressure on them,' Stimac said ahead of the match.

'We are not obsessed with results.' Talking about Oman, Stimac said, 'I have seen their match against Jordan. They are a really physical side, well organised and really patient. We also have worked hard and we expect a good game tomorrow.' Oman are coming into Thursday's match after playing out a goal-less draw with Jordan on Saturday. Before that, their last match was in December 2019 in the Gulf Cup where they lost to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

The absence of Chhetri, the second highest international goal-getter among active players, will be felt greatly but India did pull off a goal-less draw against Asian champions Qatar in Doha without the star striker in a 2022 World Cup qualifying round match in 2019.

'It's a big miss, not having Chhetri bhai in the squad. But I'm sure the boys will take this as an opportunity and we have to play together as a team,' said number one goalkeeper and senior player Gurpreet Singh Sandhu who has led the side on many occasions.

Fortunately for Stimac, the 27-member squad is a mixture of players who have been with the team earlier and new faces like Akash Mishra, Liston Colaco, Ishan Pandita, Bipin Singh and Lalengmawia. The rookies would be especially eager to showcase their talent after making an impact in the ISL.

The likes of Amrinder Singh, Chinglensana Singh, Rowllin Borges and Lallianzuala Chhangte have been the top Indian performers for their ISL teams and they will be propped up by experienced campaigners like Gurpreet, Sandesh Jhingan and Anirudh Thapa.

More than half of the 27 players are either new faces or have not played for India though they were in the earlier squads.

The All Indian Football Federation's move to play international friendlies against strong teams like Oman and the UAE ahead of the joint 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asian Cup qualifying round matches in June have been hailed by Stimac and Chhetri.

It is expected to be a tough match against Oman who have beaten India in both the legs of the 2022 World Cup qualifiers in 2019.

Oman are ranked 81st in the FIFA chart while India are at 104th but Stimac's men should take confidence from the fact that they were on equal terms with the Gulf side in the home leg match of the 2022 World Cup qualifiers in Guwahati.

In fact, India were running away with the match after Chhetri gave them the lead. Oman, however, struck two late goals to win the match. The 2017 Gulf Cup winners also won the second leg in Muscat 1-0.

History also favours Oman as they have won five times in the six matches played against India in the last decade. One match ended in a draw.

India are out of reckoning for a 2022 World Cup berth but are still in contention for qualification in the 2023 Asian Cup.

Indian Team (From): Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Amrinder Singh, Subhashish Roy Chowdhury, Dheeraj Singh, Ashutosh Mehta, Akash Mishra, Pritam Kotal, Sandesh Jhingan, Chinglensana Singh, Adil Khan, Mandar Rao Dessai, Mashoor Shereef, Rowllin Borges, Lalengmawia, Jeakson Singh, Raynier Fernandes, Anirudh Thapa, Bipin Singh, Yasir Mohammad, Suresh Singh, Halicharan Narzary, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Ashique Kuruniyan, Manvir Singh, Ishan Pandita, Hitesh Sharma, Liston Colaco.

Match Starts at 7.15pm IST; to be telecast live on Eurosport. PTI PDS PM PDS AH AH AH