India face stern challenge

India's ace striker Sunil Chhetri goes through the paces during a training session ahead of their game against Oman in Guwahati. AIFF MEDIA

India will hope that their much talked about possession-based style of play under new coach Igor Stimac bears fruit as they kick-off their FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign against Oman on Thursday, despite the unflattering results in the matches leading up to it.

A second-place finish in the Group E will land India in the third qualifying round and a positive result against Oman at the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium here can go a long way in helping the hosts achieve that. World Cup hosts Qatar, Afghanistan and Bangladesh are the other teams.

This will also be Stimac’s first real test ever since he took charge of the team. He regularly experimented with the starting XI in his last two tournaments with a hope of finding the right combination. India finished third in the Kings Cup and followed it up with a dreadful show in the Intercontinental Cup in Ahmedabad.

But the Croatian remains confident of coming up with the goods. “I am very happy with the preparations,” said Stimac at the pre-match conference here on Wednesday.

“This is my third campaign. I am really to see improvements of our game and players. The improvements players did in their conditioning, fitness level and understanding of the game, I am really pleased with it. We are concentrated, well prepared and we can’t wait for the game to start.”

The ever-reliable Sunil Chhetri will again be India’s main man, starting alongside either Lallianzuala Chhangte or Ashique Kuruniyan upfront. But their Achilles Heel continues to be the backline. The Croat has not been able to find a partner to start with Sandesh Jhingan, despite him recalling Anas Edathodika out of retirement. Rahul Bheke is expected to join him in the defence.

“We conceded some silly goals and that was not different from the past,” the Indian coach admitted. But we also played against better opponents, against Thailand, Syria where we've shown that we can handle good teams and play organised football for 90 minutes. So that will be our look for tomorrow's game. Good strong defensive look and organised game in each part of the pitch.”

The absence of Amarjit Singh Kiyam will be a worry for the hosts. The defensive midfielder had forged a solid partnership in the middle with Anirudh Thapa and Sahal Abdul Samad. With him gone, India might see a change in the formation.

Stimac and Chettri both lamented his absence. “Maybe you’ll see tears in my eyes. He deserved to start the game tomorrow. I hope he joins us very soon,” remarked Stimac.

Chhetri added, “I don't know whether he would've started or not but I know his energy translates into every one of us. He was one of the stand out performers in the recent games we played.”

Meanwhile, Oman coach Erwin Koeman, despite being tagged as favourites by his Indian counterpart, is not taking anything for granted.

"We are prepared. Both the teams want to go to the next round. So, it will be difficult. India are developing in football. It is good to see them prosper. But we are looking forward to starting the campaign with three points," he said.

Oman won both the legs when the two sides met four years ago in the World Cup Qualifiers.

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