From a bird’s eye view, the tale of India’s World Cup qualifying campaign has been rather consistent — concede a goal, create chances, fail to convert, equalise with a last-ditch attempt, then rue the effort and move on to the next match. Unfortunately, that didn’t exactly turn out to be true on Tuesday.
India were virtually knocked out of a World Cup berth after losing 1-0 to Oman at the Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex in Muscat. Even after fielding a comparatively attacking side, the Blue Tigers lost to a contentious Mohsin Al Ghassani goal right after the half-hour mark. It was Igor Stimac’s fifth loss in 10 games as India manager.
With just one win in ten matches, there does exist a general feeling of doom and gloom about the national team. Barring a win against Thailand back in June, India have failed to win a single match, losing five matches, and drawing four. Considering the 52-year-old Croatian tactician came in with phrases like, “attractive football”, “playing out of defence”, “creating chances”, the results have been rather dispiriting.
Now, after failing to get the maximum points from a near-impossible away trip, all eyes will be on the management. According to greyareaanalytics.com, Stimac is also overshadowed by his predecessor, Stephen Constantine, in terms of pure numbers.
Given the results, the question arises — is it time to worry about the team? Considering that football isn’t ever played on paper, the answer is no.
Firstly, to slay the doubtful comparisons between Constantine and Stimac, it has to be said that the former’s numbers are mostly papered over by a 5-0 demolition of a lowly Chinese Taipei back in June, 2018.
Meanwhile, Stimac’s 106-ranked India has had to deal with higher-ranked teams like Qatar (57), Curacao (76), Syria (83), and Oman (84). Moreover, Constantine was at the helm from 2015, while Stimac has only been in the job for six months.
Although India managed just two shots at Oman’s Ali Al-Habsi’s goal on Tuesday, the basics of the approach remained the same. Play out from the back, get it to the midfielders and work the channels to create opportunities. What was lacking was either the final pass, or a lethal shot on goal.
However, India should be cut some slack, as they were without their vocal defender, Sandesh Jhingan, and midfielders Amarjit Singh Kiyam and Rowllin Borges. Added to that agony, all of their key players at the back — Adil Khan, Rahul Bheke and Pronay Halder — had to be substituted because of injuries. Stimac could do very little from the touchline.
Despite the mediocrity of players’ performances against Afghanistan, the goalkeeping error against Bangladesh and the general lack of goals being scored from open play, there’s still some reason for cheer. After the disastrous Intercontinental Cup, India have just conceded five goals in five matches in their World Cup qualifiers, and still have a healthy chance to qualify for the next round of 2023 Asian Cup qualifiers by finishing third in their group.
Compared to Constantine’s eight-match World Cup qualifying campaign which saw India at the bottom of the group, with seven defeats and just three points, the current youth-infused squad are doing wonders. Not only have they equalled the previous tally of points in just five matches, but they have also held the Asian champions, Qatar, on their turf.
Under Stimac, India has been expressive on their own terms, helped by the inclusion of players like Sahal Abdul Samad, Brandon Fernandes, Rahul Bheke, and Amarjit Singh Kiyam. With the slight pressing regime and attempting to maintain their shape even in the dying stages of games, Stimac has shown that his team will keep trying, instead of just switching to route-one football.
Keeping the average number of shots and corners close to the conceded, and maintaining an average possession percentage over 50 should be given its due credit too. In the end, it still is a work in progress, which continues its search for a goalscorer other than the talismanic Sunil Chhetri.
Stimac knows that 70 per cent of the 10 goals India has scored under him have come from set-pieces, and will hope for a change in fortune in the team’s open-play chance conversion. With the extended Indian Super League this year, players should gain consistency over the course of the season too.
Aiming to match his predecessor’s success of qualifying for the Asian Cup, the Croatian now has ample time to prepare before the next qualifier, with both the domestic leagues expected to be in full swing from December. Truth be told, the Blue Pilgrims will be in dreamland if India manage to beat the minnows and hold Qatar on home soil on March 26 to end their campaign on a high, and securing their future for the 2023 Asian Cup.
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