World Cup Qualifiers: India’s elusive quest begins with old foe Oman

India will open their qualifying campaign against Oman in Guwahati, and Qatar in Doha in a space of five days. (Source: AIFF)
India will open their qualifying campaign against Oman in Guwahati, and Qatar in Doha in a space of five days. (Source: AIFF)

Before walking out on the field along with Oman in the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium (Guwahati), Igor Stimac’s India will have their fingers crossed going into the second round of 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifier. The match will kick-off the joint-qualification process for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup as well, making it the toughest test for Igor Stimac ever since his appointment in May.

Two days after the conclusion of Intercontinental Cup, India (103) were drawn into Group E of the Asian qualifiers on July 17. Pitted along with continental heavyweights like Qatar (62) and Oman (87), and Afghanistan (149) and neighbour Bangladesh (182), the Blue Tigers will look to enforce their new "brand of football".

Although results did not go their way in King’s Cup and Intercontinental Cup, a change from Stephen Constantine’s long-ball approach has been welcomed by one and all. A youthful midfield filled with swagger, willing to pass and move from the back itself, is a reflection of the Croat’s positive mantra.

"Realistically, Qatar and Oman are the favourites in our group. We have never won an official qualifying match against either of them, so, it’s not going to be easy at all. In Guwahati, we are going to give everything on the pitch, aiming to win it," said Stimac in a pre-match press conference.

After arriving in Guwahati on September 2, and conducting multiple training sessions, Stimac now has a couple of headaches to sort out before Thursday the unavailability of Amarjit Singh Kiyam due to a broken hand, and the absence of a defensive partner of Sandesh Jhingan.

Without the 18-year-old midfielder in front of the defence, Stimac would have to look at the local boy, Vinit Rai, hoping to partner Anirudh Thapa and Sahal Abdul Samad in proper tandem.

READ | Intercontinental Cup: More problems than solutions for India

Despite winning just once in Stimac’s five matches in charge, scoring seven and conceding 13 goals, the feeling is that the Indian team including their greenhorns have internalised the transitional, passing system in the past four-and-half-months.

Oman’s job will be to threaten that belief, just like they did four years back.

Like India, Oman too have never featured at the quadrennial event, but coming into the qualifiers in red-hot form, winning four of their last five matches, Dutchman Erwin Koeman’s side will look to bag three crucial away points on Thursday.

The 34-year-old influential midfielder, Ahmed Kano has returned in time for the qualifiers, who will hope to feed in balls for the newly-called up striker, Arshad Al Alawi, and the seasoned Mohammed Al-Ghassini. The likes of midfielders, Ahmed Mubarak and Ibrahim Saleh, and right back Saad ‘Suhail’ Al Mukhaini might dampen the fluidity of India’s midfield.

Schedule for the second-round of 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.
Schedule for the second-round of 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

India’s record against their Asian rivals is not a bed of roses with the Blue Tigers winning just once against Oman in seven outings, losing four and squaring two. However, the hosts have won their last two matches at the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium against Nepal (2-0) and Laos (6-1).

Complementing that form, a motivated Vinit Rai, who was born in Duliajan in the Dibrugarh district of Assam, stated his belief that a victory against Oman will help ease the pain for people in Assam after a number of people lost their lives due to floods in the state.

We play to win. We will play to our strengths, and look to keep the opposition at bay. We have to play together as a team, and without fear," said the recent Arjuna awardee, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who was in the squad in the goalless draw against Oman, back in December 2018.

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After Oman, India face Qatar in Doha on September 10, where Felix Sanchez s side will prove to be the hardest problem to solve. Going unbeaten in the entire AFC Asian Cup and conceding just once in the final against Japan in January, Qatar even gave Colombia a run for their money in Copa America.

As far as facing Anoush Dastgir’s Afghanistan and Jamie Day’s Bangladesh in the second round is concerned, there is no time to cut some slack as upsets are always round the corner. The neighbour has already triumphed over Laos in the first round of the qualifiers in June to advance to the second round as one of the best six teams.

At the end of the second round, the top teams from each of the eight groups and the four best runners-up across all the groups will advance to the third round of the World Cup qualifiers. The qualification process will end in November 2021 with the conclusion of the fifth round.

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The 27-member preliminary squad of India:

Goalkeepers: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Amrinder Singh, Kamaljit Singh, Vishal Kaith

Defenders: Rahul Bheke, Pritam Kotal, Nishu Kumar, Anas Edathodika, Sandesh Jhingan, Narender Gahlot, Sarthak Golui, Adil Khan, Subhasish Bose, Mandar Rao Dessai

Midfielders: Nikhil Poojary, Udanta Singh, Anirudh Thapa, Raynier Fernandes, Vinit Rai, Sahal Abdul Samad, Rowllin Borges, Brandon Fernandes, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Ashique Kuruniyan

Forwards: Sunil Chhetri, Balwant Singh, Manvir Singh

Vying for a place in 2018 FIFA World Cup, India had finished bottom in the second round of the Asian qualifiers after losing seven successive matches in a group that consisted Iran, Turkmenistan, Oman, and Guam. But, the Blue Tigers do know that just doing the bare minimum of not finishing last for the sake of saving pride this time around, will have no benefit in their elusive pursuit of qualifying for a maiden FIFA World Cup.

The match against Oman will be broadcast live on Star Sports 3, Star Sports 1 Bangla and Asianet Plus. It will also be streamed online from 1930 hours on Hotstar and Jio TV.