In a rather generous assessment of his team, Igor Stimac opined India ‘deserved at least a point’ from their 2-1 loss to Oman because they ‘completely dominated the first half.’ Fair enough India, true to the style that’s fast becoming their identity, stretched the West Asian heavyweights and ran them ragged. Sunil Chhetri, who else, even scored a goal that gave the hosts a surprise lead. So far, very good.
But then, the way they played the second half, did India actually deserve anything? If you analyse dispassionately, probably not. For the first 45 minutes, their runs were breathtaking. The next 45, they ran themselves breathless; most of it mindless. It’s a shame that the former will be forgotten, though.
To his credit, Stimac got his first 11 for the opening match of the 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asian Cup joint qualifier spot on. He was pragmatic in choosing his players, opting for caution over creativity. Sahal Abdul Samad and Lallianzuala Chhangte one playmaker and the other pacey started on the bench, making way for Rowllin Borges and Brandon Fernandes, both with the ability to counter Oman’s physicality. Anirudh Thapa, the team’s creative outlet, and Udanta Singh formed the midfield quartet that gelled perfectly with an industrious Ashique Kuruniyan and the incisive Chhetri.
So good were these players that the backline barely had anything to worry about in the first half. It was in sharp contrast to the manner in which India played against Oman four years ago in the same tournament and at the same stage. Back then, they chased the ball for long durations and could barely stitch together two passes.
On Thursday, however, India looked a side transformed. They didn’t allow Oman any time on the ball, showed technical abilities that few Indian sides in the recent past have and found unique ways to create goal-scoring opportunities.
Kuruniyan, playing his first match after the King’s Cup in May, made a nuisance of himself in the Oman box by using his speed to constantly run behind the defenders. Udanta was proving quick for everyone on the field. He made blinding runs down the right and combined well with his Bengaluru FC teammates both, Chhetri and Kuruniyan.
In fact, the winger could’ve scored the opening goal inside the first 15 minutes Chhetri released him through on goal with a nicely-weighted ball but Udanta’s fierce right-footed shot thudded off the inside of the crossbar. That move rattled Oman, who were already surprised with India’s approach, and gave India more confidence to march forward.
They were rewarded for the approach in the 24th minute. Kuruniyan was fouled by Abdulaziz Al Ghailani on the left edge of the box. Brandon Fernandes took the free-kick, played a low-cross in the middle of the box. Chhetri fooled his marker to drill a left-footer into the Oman net to give India the lead.
One would’ve expected India to pile more pressure on Oman considering the momentum was in their favour. But, rather mysteriously, they went into a shell immediately after scoring. Suddenly, Oman were able to find space rather easily in the midfield and began to control the tempo. Their dominance grew even more in the second half, when India went ultra-defensive.
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, whose credentials as India’s first-choice goalkeeper have been questioned, proved why he is still India’s No.1 goalkeeper by pulling off a string of magnificent saves to preserve India’s lead. But there was only so much he could do.
As the midfielders conceded the battle in their zone and defenders were pushed deep into their own half, it was only a matter of time before Oman scored. And once the first went in Al-Mandhar Al Alawi scoring in the 82nd minute the second was never too far away. Al Alawi was at it once again; his powerful left-footer in the stoppage time gave Sandhu no chance and broke Indian hearts.
India will now travel to Doha to face 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar on September 10.