IN MANY WAYS, this match had acquired the air of a showpiece event. It was supposed to be the occasion when India announced itself to the world; demonstrated its vision of chasing the unthinkable. It was supposed to be the victory that turned it all around.
Tickets had sold out; the build-up had reached a crescendo… until reality struck. Not that there were no signs of improvement, accompanied by moments of brilliance. But the overall performance was a reminder that this Indian team wasn’t a fully-baked unit yet. However, it wouldn’t be naïve to have high hopes from the Blue Tigers in near future.
Coach Stephen Constantine only got about a week to train his boys ahead of this all-important first match of second round in World Cup and Asian Cup qualifiers. He organized two preparatory camps in Delhi and Bangalore, which included out-of-the-box techniques like obstacle courses at an Army centre. His aim was to bridge the one big gap existing between the Indian and Oman teams: experience of playing together as a team, something this largely new-look Indian team doesn’t have much of. This very factor was laid bare when at the very beginning when Rino Anto was caught napping and Qasim Said put the ball in the net within the first 25 seconds.
The team Constantine had picked was high on youth and speed, as was evident from the game. There were six changes from the team that played Nepal on 17th March. As many as four young players were handed a national team debut. Yet after the initial shock and wave of attacks in the first twenty minutes, which saw newly appointed captain Arnab Mondal fumble with the ball multiple times and some great saves from the keeper Subrata Paul, Blue Tigers went toe to toe with their opponents who were 40 places above them in the FIFA rankings.
It was around the 26th minute when India saw their brightest moment. Debutant Rino Anto walked up to take a throw-in deep inside Oman half and delivered the ball to Sunil Chhetri. The experienced striker, playing at his club home ground, hardly even looked at the goal post, instinctively knowing where to put it. He spun around and gave the ball a light tap with the left foot. The ball drew a glorious curve in the air and brushed past the farthest edge of the post, kissing the net. Oman goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi, a Premier League veteran, could do nothing and stood dumbfounded. It was memorable way to extend Chhetri’s record of scoring most goals of all time in Indian colours.
In the minutes that followed it seemed like the home team had finally found its footing. They pressed Oman with repeated attacks and set pieces, matching the visitors’ pace and successfully disrupting their quick-passing playing style.
But the tide turned again when medio Al-Farsi managed to run past the defense line, into the penalty box, with the ball. Dhanachandra Singh ran up to him and Farsi got tripped. The resulting penalty kick saw Ehmad Al Hosni retrieve the lead for the visitors.
Minutes later Aziz Al Muqbali fished for more as he went down inside the box on a Dhanachandra tackle. Referee Ko Hyung Jin immediately spotted the dive and showed him a yellow. The first half ended with India trailing 1-2.
Early in the second half Jackichand ran up the right flank and delivered a good cross to C K Vineeth on the left but the latter’s finish was too late, too wide. It was followed by some minutes of poor passing and ball control from India that made allowed Oman strikers to repeatedly take Indian defenders to task. But Dhanachandra, playing his heart out to make up for the penalty given away, ran all around making intercepts and clearances. Al Muqbali lingered like a bad omen around the Indian penalty box while Al Khadi and Al Hosni either fed him or tried to find their own way in. In response India put almost everyone behind the ball to fend them off. And after a while, chances began to come their way to move forward on the counter.
In the 67th minute Dhanachandra’s long ball saw Robin Singh with a forward dash into Oman’s penalty box but two defenders got to him and forced the ball out for a corner. Eugeneson Lyngdoh stepped up and delivered a short one to C K Vineeth, who let fly through a narrow gap in between the jungle of legs. The ball took a touch off defender Sallam Amur, who was being pressed by Robin Singh in an apparent offside position. The ball went in, and for a few seconds it seemed like India were level, but referee Jin spoke to the linesman and disallowed the goal. The next few minutes saw Robin Singh repeatedly get caught offside as a sense of gloom descended on the 19,000-strong crowd assembled at Sree Kanteerava.
Anchor In the last minute of regulation time, controversy erupted as Sunil Chhetri was brought down inside the penalty box and the referee waved it off. It was a tough call and Jin went with his gut, but on another day India might well have been awarded a spot kick. But it was not to be and the equalizer the Indian team so desperately sought never came. The match ended with the score still reading 1-2 in favour of Oman, who secured three crucial points from a tough away game to kick off their campaign with.
In spite of this being a loss, the Indian team as a whole delivered on its promises of improvement. In spite of so much inexperience, India were not terribly outdone by an experienced side that had just played two friendlies in preparation for this game.
Many aspects of this game will be put under scrutiny, including some of the tactical choices made by coach Stephen Constantine. After a very long time India saw a team minus any Goan, with six Bengaluru FC players in the starting line-up. Constantine chose to put Vineeth on the left when he is overwhelmingly right-footed. Jackichand Singh, whose interventions created much of the counters for India, was substituted for a less experienced and more defensive Setiyasen Singh. At the end of the game the coach made no qualms about admitting that his work his far from done, “This is not a settled team… this is my third game.” He sought to put the defeat in perspective, “I think you’re forgetting that [Oman] is a team that went to the Asian Cup and lost to the two finalists in their group.”
Eugeneson Lyngdoh, for whom it was perhaps the toughest game yet in his national career, lamented a slow start by the home side, “I think we started off slower. We came out better in the second half. I think we should’ve got the momentum earlier.”
Sunil Chhetri, the sole scorer for India in the match, was disappointed with the way Oman were allowed to dominate the midfield, “Their two central midfielders were in control. I would go to mark one of them and the other would be free. We gave them too much space.”
According to the coach, the real takeaway from this match is the fighting spirit displayed by the Indian side. “We have been down there for years but we will not be down under my watch, that's for sure. Today I saw something from the boys that when they went a goal down, they came back. They went two goals down, they came back.” And he was right. Although the result was a heartbreak, the Blue Tigers had made good their promise to put up a worthy fight.
India’s World Cup Qualifiers campaign now hangs on a balance. A win, or at least a draw, was necessary from this game. To gain promotion to the third round as well as a direct entry in the 2019 Asian Cup, one be among the 8 group winners or 4 best runners up, so every point counts. From here on the task will be uphill for Team India, and there isn’t much time to rest.
The next match is away to Guam on the 16th of June. Although a lower ranked team, they will be on high spirits, having just beaten Turkmenistan 1-0 in their first match. They will also have the home advantage. The Indian team will have just a couple of days to shake off this defeat, get familiar with the conditions out there, and get prepared for the match. And if the fighting spirit displayed by the Blue Tigers in the first match is anything to go by, they will be more than up for the challenge.