For some, it is the beginning of a cycle brimming with aspiration and excitement. For India, it is a brutal and ritualistic reminder of the hopelessness they are mired in. A Nolan-esque take on lucid dreaming. Starting Thursday, 40 Asian teams will compete for the four direct, and one playoff, spots for the 2022 World Cup. India are one of them. Beginning with a clean slate, as equals — even if it’s just for a day — with a new-look team, under a coach with World Cup pedigree.
But Qatar 2022, it’s safe to concede, remains a goal way beyond India’s reach. The more realistic target would be the 2023 Asian Cup as these qualifiers also provide an opportunity to seal a spot for the continental championship.
The next nine months, though, will be a throwback to the same shortcomings that have defined India’s previous campaigns — a frustrating reminder of the country’s refusal to learn. In that sense, India’s qualifying campaign seems doomed even before it gets going. Yet, there is a lot to look forward to as well, if qualifying for the Asian Cup is the realistic target. And Oman, India’s first opponents, will be a good reference point.
Four years ago, India’s failed attempt to qualify for the 2018 World Cup began against the same team. That match, played on a pleasant Bangalore evening, was an exhibition in bravado by a stubborn, but under-skilled, India who fielded five debutants. Sunil Chhetri’s left-foot curler to beat Ali al-Habsi was the highlight in the 2-1 defeat to a more technical and physical opponent.
That — the goal and the match — remained a high point of a campaign that was one of the worst even by the country’s woeful standards. India have done well to recover from those forgetful 18-odd months. As the two sides meet again in Guwahati, in the same competition and at the same stage, the hosts will feel a little more confident than ever before of stealing a point at least against their much-fancied opponents, if not all three.
Semblance of style
One of the most noticeable changes in the team since then is that there is a semblance of style now in the manner in which they play. For a long time, India – and Indians – have had futile debates over how the national team should play. To borrow the words of former Bulgarian international Dimitar Berbatov, who was describing David James’s philosophy at Kerala Blasters, India just ‘chipped the ball to the striker’s chest and took it from there.’
Of late, however, they have developed a distinct style. At the Asian Cup and a couple of tournaments since then – the King’s Cup in Thailand and the Intercontinental Cup – India have troubled teams when they managed to exploit the pace on the wings, been swift during turnovers and quick in the interplay between wingers and forwards.
That style, enforced by Stephen Constantine, came as a revelation to many during the Asian Cup, where they stunned Thailand and handed continental heavyweights UAE a massive scare. Constantine’s perseverance with youth has given his successor Igor Stimac a sweet selection headache – at least in midfield. The challenge for Stimac in his first competitive match will be to identify a playing 11, which can play in the same fashion.
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In his four months, and five matches, as India coach, Stimac has tried 27 different players. His idea was to test as many players as possible before settling on his preferred line-up. What he has is one of the most exciting Indian midfields in recent times. Young and quick. Creative and cunning.
On the wings are Udanta Singh (23) and Lallianzuala Chhangte (22), both of whom can fly; in the centre are the brainy 21-year-olds – Anirudh Thapa and Vinit Rai; slotted in front of them, and just behind Chhetri, is 22-year-old Sahal Abdul Samad, the UAE-born midfielder who has got everyone in Indian football excited with his flamboyance.
These players have the ability to beat defenders and play with the ball, attributes one doesn’t often see in Indians. Stimac has the gifted Brandon Fernandes and gritty Ashique Kuruniyan as back-ups in case Plan A doesn’t work. Or will he be tempted to go with a more physical Rowllin Borges to counter the likes of Ahmed Mubarak ‘Kano’, the strong 34-year-old midfielder who has been the team’s go-to man for almost a decade? Kano is symbolic of the West Asian giants’ style, which is typical to the region: physical and technical.
For India’s young midfield, the task will not just be to find creative ways to generate goal-scoring chances but also to withstand the pressure in midfield and shield a fragile-looking defence.
Oman have made some eye-catching progress in the last four years; winning the 2017 Gulf Cup and reaching the knockout stages of this year’s Asian Cup is evidence. They are on a hot streak as well, winning four out of their last five matches heading into Thursday’s qualifier. For them, and the rest of the continent, the Asian qualifiers will be a path to the World Cup. For India, on the other hand, the World Cup qualifiers will be a path to the Asian Cup.