India will again look up to the talismanic Sunil Chhetri when they open their 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers against Oman here on Thursday in coach Igor Stimac’s biggest test so far.
A member of the Croatian team that reached the semifinals of the 1998 World Cup, Stimac is undoubtedly one of the most high-profile names to have managed India, but the start hasn’t been impressive.
A third-place finish in the King’s Cup in Thailand was followed by an uninspiring outing in the Intercontinental Cup at home where Stimac experimented.
The task is only going to get tougher in the coming months and the Croat is aware of the challenges facing his currently 103-ranked side.
He has acknowledged that Oman, along with Qatar, are the two strong favourites in the group.
“Realistically, Qatar and Oman are the favourites in our group. We have never won an official (World Cup qualifying) match against either of them. So it’s not going to be easy at all. In Guwahati we are going to give everything on the pitch, aiming to win it,” Stimac said.
Being clubbed with 2022 World Cup hosts in the Asian qualifiers second round helps as a second-place finish behind Qatar will see India in the third qualifying round.
That is why the two home and away matches against the 87-ranked side, starting with the one at the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium, assume significance.
The hosts were dealt a blow days before the opening match with young mid-fielder Amarjit Singh Kiyam being ruled out due to an injury.
The 18-year-old, who captained India in the U-17 World Cup at home two years ago, was the only player who featured in all five matches since Stimac’s appointment.
His absence in front of the defence, where Sandesh Jhingan is looking for a strong ally, will be missed.
Jhingan is set to have Rahul Bheke as partner with Pritam Kotal on the right and Subhasish Bose on the left.
The ever-dependable Udanta Singh will man the mid-field alongside the young Sahal Abdul Samad, Anirudh Thapa and Lallianzuala Chhangte.
With Stimac preferring a 4-2-3-1 formation instead of his predecessor Stephen Constantine’s 4-4-2, the 35-year-old Chhetri is set to be the lone man upfront with Ashique Kuruniyan playing behind one of international football’s leading scorers.
Like India, Oman also have a new manager in Dutchman Erwin Koeman, who took his players to Germany for a three-week conditioning camp while playing local sides.
The 34-year-old mid-fielder Ahmed Kano will be a vital cog in the team that reached the Round of 16 in the Asian Cup earlier this year.
Koeman has also called up young striker Arshad Al Alawi, who was one of the standout stars of the 2016 AFC Under-16 Championships.
The visitors’ mid-field will be marshalled by Ahmed Mubarak and Ibrahim Saleh, with Mohammed Al-Ghassini playing upfront.
India lost both their matches against Oman at the same stage during the qualification for the 2018 World Cup.