The Blue Tigers face another stern test in the shape of the west Asian powerhouse.
It all boils down to this. This is the closure before a beginning. The Baniyas Stadium in Abu Dhabi will on Thursday ride in a wave of preparation for 11 men and two billion dreams, but only a part of it will witness it as India take on Oman in their final major game before the AFC Asian Cup 2019 kicks-off on the 5th of January next year.
The defensive rigidity and stubbornness, the link-up play, the fine-tuning of the midfield cohesion and the ironing out of the little flaws – manager Stephen Constantine would look at this one, the last chance before his boys take on Thailand on the 6th. India are expected to play another friendly against a UAE club side on Sunday, but there has been no official announcement from the AIFF so far.
Regarding the upcoming fixture, the Blue Tigers gaffer has stated, “It’s going to be extremely hard. We have come here to play the big boys of Asia. We played against the likes of Jordan, China. We need to play these sort of games to prepare in the best possible fashion.”
India last played Oman in the FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 qualifiers twice, with Oman winning on both occasions. Constantine quipped, “We were very unlucky to lose the first leg in Bengaluru. That was our first group stage game in the qualifiers. But we are a much improved side now, and much younger.”
Meanwhile, central midfielder Pronay Halder has said, “We have matured a lot since then. Our organization on the field is much better compared to what we were in 2015.”
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Indian left-back Narayan Das feels that the team is ready for their upcoming set of matches
The Indian squad reached the scenic city Abu Dhabi last week and have been training well. The mood in the group is upbeat. Sunil Chhetri looked determined on departure and on arrival, and a lot, unquestionably, rides on how the #11 fares in the national kit. India will have their task cut out against the West Asian nation, who defeated the UAE to win the Arabian Gulf Cup in Kuwait earlier this year.
About the Teams
India have played two strong nations in their last two encounters, drawing one and losing another in foreign conditions. China posed a massive challenge for the Blue Tigers both in footballing and reputation terms and drawing against the neighbours earned the boys respect and confidence. Against Jordan, India played a second-string side as most of the squad were stuck mid-journey due to incessant rains in the country.
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Thus, the last game cannot be termed ‘ideal’ for a team that is not just fighting to win at the continental showpiece, but also to earn pride and respect from its continental opponents. Constantine has certainly not missed any players due to injury, except Dhanpal Ganesh, who had made the national squad after a strong ISL season last year.
The Englishman, meanwhile, has found two young lieutenants in Subhasish Bose and Anirudh Thapa, both players rising like phoenixes in recent times in their roles. Bose has usurped Narayan Das from the left-back position, or replaces Anas Edathodika whenever the Kerala man is not on top form. Thapa has taken away Rowlin Borges’ position in the midfield. Both of them can feature, given Borges’ strong performances for NorthEast United in the ISL.
A team that hasn’t lost a game in the last year, they certainly stand between India and victory, strongly. Pim Verbeek took over the squad in 2016 and his CV speaks for himself. As assistant manager under the revered Guus Hiddink, he took South Korea to the FIFA World Cup semi-final in 2002. Verbeek managed Australia to qualification for the 2010 World Cup, so the man knows what it takes to win on the biggest stage.
Oman have seen a massive change in their defensive resoluteness under Verbeek, who has time and again stated that he hates to lose. Standing at 82nd in the FIFA rankings, they will be a tough nut to crack, but Constantine and Chhetri will need to out-think their opponents if they are to pose a challenge.
Oman aren’t ruthless scorers and depend on slow build-ups to break down their opponents. The team have won three and drawn two of their last five games, scoring just six times. That must be a relief for Constantine, but taking their attackers lightly would be a dire mistake to make.
In Ibrahim Saleh, Khalid Al-Hajri and Abdul Aziz-Muqbali, Oman have a triquetrous attack, that bodes well for the team who will face heavyweights Japan and Uzbekistan during the tournament. Thus, they will try to make sure their attackers are on song before the final test begins, something that India would have to deal with.
In a 4-2-3-1 formation, Constantine could utilize Anirudh Thapa as the main playmaker
Constantine can be expected to go with one of two systems – either a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-2. Ideally, in both scenarios, goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu is set to start under the bar with Anas Edathodika and vice-captain Sandesh Jhingan manning him centrally. Subhasish Bose will play at left-back and Pritam Kotal will accompany him on the opposite flank.
In the first scenario, ideally, both Rowllin Borges and Pronay Halder should play as defensive shelters, with Anirudh Thapa slotting into the #10 role. Udanta Singh down the right, captain Chhetri down the left, with Jeje Lalpekhlua up top. But, that looks unlikely to happen, given Constantine’s love for the tireless defensive worker Holicharan Narzary on the left.
The Englishman could also use Narzary as a left winger, with Chhetri being placed behind the striker
He will play down the left, taking Borges’ place in the XI. Thapa will replace Borges in midfield, with Chhetri playing behind Lalpekhlua. Udanta may have a little competition from FC Goa’s in-form Jackichand Singh, but is expected to make the starting XI. Jackichand may be given a look-in against tiring defenders.
The national team tactician could also go with a 4-4-2 formation with Halder or Borges going onto the bench
In the 4-4-2 setup, India will have exactly the same setup, with Chhetri taking up a more advanced position, slotting in as a second striker with Jeje in tow. The proximity with which the pair has played in recent national team affairs makes this a fair bet. The manager would also be willing to keep Chhetri as close to the goal as possible, knowing him to be India’s best scoring option.
There is a very, very small chance that Farukh Chaudhary may start up top, with both Lalpekhlua and Balwant Singh misfiring. The Jamshedpur FC youngster will hope he makes the most of the situation, if such arises.
Oman are expected to field a side in the 4-2-3-1 shape, but there’s no finality yet on the squad.
Sandhu (GK), Bose, Edathodika, Jhingan, Kotal, Halder, Thapa, Narzary, Udanta, Chhetri ©, Jeje.
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Can the duo shine again?
Faiz Al Rushaidi (GK), Al-Musalami, Al-Mukhaini, Al-Busaidi, Al-Rawahi, Ibrahim Saleh, Al-Mahajiri, Al-Mashari, Said, Al-Hajri, Aziz Al-Muqbali
- In the group stage, the side that fights hardest on the pitch will emerge as the winner– Narayan Das
- We have a telepathic understanding on the pitch– Jeje Lalpekhlua on his partnership with Sunil Chhetri
What To Expect
A slow, tirade approach to attack by both teams, with Perveek’s Oman controlling the proceedings and India sitting back, deep, to try and counter at every opportunity. Oman will try and switch flanks regularly and will look to trouble both Kotal and Bose vehemently, but India will have to hold their fort well to make sure they go into the Asian Cup with a lot of valour, pride and confidence.