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Tuesday, June 22, 2021

India vs Oman: Lack of strikers an issue as Indian football reboots

Thursday’s game doesn’t carry a consequence, like the past battles against Oman – with the average age of the team being 24 – a host of fresher, newer faces have been called by Stimac to the national team.

Written by Shashank Nair | New Delhi |
Updated: March 25, 2021 11:23:31 am
India vs Oman Live Score: Igor Stimac attending a training session. (AIFF)

On 19th November 2019, the Indian national football team would slump to a 1-0 defeat to Oman in the second round of the Asian World Cup Qualifiers – ending any hopes of making it to the next round of the qualification.

Over 16 months, a pandemic and a five month-Indian Super League bio bubble later, the national team reconvenes again, this time for a pair of friendlies against Oman and the United Arab Emirates. The first of these takes place on Thursday at the Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum Stadium in Dubai.

Now a meeting against a team that India have met quite a bit over the past few years on the international stage (thrice since 2018) is one that doesn’t elicit the best memories for national coach Igor Stimac.

Starry-eyed dreams

Both the losses that India has suffered against Oman in the World Cup Qualifiers were close matches where a tackle here, a goal there could have made a difference.

“When I was watching the past games, sometimes I cried. The last game against Oman (1-0 loss) was supposed to be the turning point whether we are going to fight for the first spot or second. Some decisions let us down or tiredness which showed that some players were not ready for 90 minutes of football,” national team coach Stimac told reporters on Wednesday.

The two previous WC qualifiers against Bangladesh at home and Afghanistan away, two matches that India were the favourites to win and yet could only manage draws, were also mentioned by Stimac.

The poor performances by the Indian team, which at the time was touted to be on way to becoming an Asian powerhouse, was a brutal reminder of just how much work needed to be done.

“When you play against Bangladesh or Afghanistan, there is a lot of pressure because those games put you in a favourite position. We created chances but have not been effective in scoring goals. Our intention is to play and not to chase and that’s what we are working on,” said Stimac.

Chhetri-sized void

Thursday’s game doesn’t carry a consequence, like the past battles against Oman – with the average age of the team being 24 – a host of fresher, newer faces have been called by Stimac to the national team.

Sunil Chhetri wasn’t available for these friendlies after contracting covid once out of the ISL bio-bubble. And the biggest concern in the squad selected is the lack of a player who primarily plays as a striker. Out of the chosen squad, Manvir Singh is a striker who was played as a right wing-back at ATK Mohun Bagan this season. Hyderabad’s Liston Colaco and Hitesh Singh both took up spaces in the left and the centre of the Hyderabad formation but never at the top as strikers. And that leaves Ishan Pandita.

Speaking about the striker situation for the national team, Stimac laid the onus on Indian Super League clubs to give more playing time to Indian strikers.

“The best thing is if there could be 11 strikers in the squad. This year we only have Sunil Chhetri who was playing as a striker after the change of positions (at Bengaluru) and Ishan (Pandita) who came on for a few minutes and scored some wonderful goals. We need to have much more trust in Indian players,” said the Croatian.

This message of needing ISL teams to trust Indian players is one that Stimac has been speaking of for a while now. Hyderabad FC was one team that placed faith on Indian players. The ISL team narrowly missed out on a playoff spot. They played with fewer foreign recruits than other teams. Six of their young Indian players were selected by Stimac to play in these two friendlies.

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