Travelling for more than 4500 kilometres, from Dushanbe to Muscat, the Indian team landed in the capital city of Oman with their heads held high and hope in their hearts on Sunday ahead of their must-win World Cup qualifying clash. On Tuesday, the Blue Tigers are set to face the 84-ranked Oman at the warm conditions of Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex which will seal their fate for 2022.
Winless in four matches so far, India have had a disappointing campaign to say the least where their attacking output has been quite questionable. Although, they held the Asian champions, Qatar, on their home turf, Igor Stimac’s men failed to bag six, comparatively easier points against Bangladesh in Kolkata and Afghanistan in Dushanbe, where both the matches ended 1-1.
Their only loss so far in the campaign came against Oman itself in the first leg in Guwahati, when they had lost 2-1 after quite a spirited performance. A first-half strike from Sunil Chhetri lifted the roof of Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium, but ultimately turned out to be so-near-yet-so-far as the Gulf nation had struck twice in the dying minutes to outwit the home side.
Ranked 106, two places worse than the last time, India’s chances to defeat an Oman side, who are coming into this match after a 4-1 victory over Bangladesh, look quite bleak. Without the maximum points on Tuesday, India’s chances of not making it to the World Cup finals will slim down to minuscule margins.
After three draws and a defeat, India are fourth in Group E with three points while Oman are second with nine points from four matches. Qatar are on top with 10 points from four matches. If India lose, they will trail Oman by nine points and have only three matches — a maximum nine points — left to play in the second round of the qualifiers.
Even finishing as the second-placed team from their group wouldn’t be enough for India to guarantee an automatic spot in the third round of the qualifiers, as with Qatar topping the group, the Blue Tigers will have to be among the five-best runners-up in the eight groups.
But getting at least a point against Oman may prove crucial as it will make it easier for India to get an automatic third round berth for the 2023 Asian Cup qualifiers. The third-placed teams and the best four fourth-placed teams from the eight groups automatically get a spot in the third round of the qualifiers of the continental championships.
With Stimac’s side leaking goals at the back at crucial junctures of matches and the attack looking toothless, failing to convert chances, the Croatian tactician has logically labelled Oman as the favourites.
“Oman are much better now than the team we played against in Guwahati. They are the favourites. We know for a fact that match is going to be very difficult for us,” said the 52-year-old.
Historically too, India are the underdogs, having not won any of the 11 matches they have played against Oman who have emerged victorious on eight occasions. Before the Guwahati match in September, the two sides played out a 0-0 draw in the run-up to the 2019 Asian Cup. In the 2018 World Cup qualifiers played in 2015, India had lost to Oman 3-0 in Muscat, before a 2-1 defeat in Bangalore.
After facing Oman, India will have three more matches in the qualification round — two at home and one away. On March 26, India will take on Qatar, while on June 4 it will take a trip to Bangladesh. Its final World Cup qualification game will be against Afghanistan on June 9 on home soil.
India will still be without senior central defender Anas Edathodika as he returned home before the Afghanistan match due to a family emergency, dealing a further blow to a team which has lost the services of Sandesh Jhingan, Rowllin Borges and Amarjit Singh Kiyam due to injuries.
Goalkeepers: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Amrinder Singh, Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem.
Defenders: Pritam Kotal, Nishu Kumar, Rahul Bheke, Narender, Adil Khan, Sarthak Golui, Subhasish Bose, Mandar Rao Dessai.
Midfielders: Udanta Singh, Jackichand Singh, Seiminlen Doungel, Raynier Fernandes, Vinit Rai, Sahal Abdul Samad, Pronay Halder, Anirudh Thapa, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Brandon Fernandes, Ashique Kuruniyan.
Forwards: Sunil Chhetri, Manvir Singh, Farukh Choudhary.