India's first match at the 2022 World Cup Qualifiers Round Two against Oman was a game of two halves.
It was like watching two different sets of players playing before and after the break. India had total control over Oman for most of the first half. In the attacking third, India looked dangerous and were more likely to score a goal than their opponents. At the back, there was only one occasion wherein Gurpreet Sandhu had to be alert. Their attack was stifled and India had figured Oman out. Stimac's men were simply excellent until the break.
But then the second half happened. The Blue Tigers looked lethargic, lost out on second balls and succumbed to consistent pressure applied by an invigorated Oman side. Yes, Oman did increase their intensity in the attacking third but India's capitulation in the final quarter of the game was their own doing. The first half was undone and India lost the match.
Sadly for the vociferous bunch in the stands, this wasn't a one-off. The last time India prevented their opponents from scoring in the second half and secured a win was in January, during their Asian Cup group game against Thailand. A remarkable performance saw Constantine's team win the game 4-1 and three of India's goals were scored after the break. Late goals were scored by UAE and Bahrain as well, sending India out of the tournament.
Igor Stimac was brought on board and while his ideas on how the team should play are exciting, the drop in quality of running after the break remains a concern for the Croatian head coach. India run a lot in the second half as well but the effectiveness of the running is poor. This was evident in the Intercontinental Cup matches wherein India conceded seven second-half goals in three games.
"The boys are ready for 90 minutes, they can run for 90 minutes. But the way of running is important. When you are in the lead you have to keep the ball and not run with them. But they will learn," said Stimac after the match.
There is a need to ensure that Indian players play football games for a lot more than five months in a year. Both I-League and Indian Super League (ISL), the two professional leagues in the country, last only for four months, usually from September/October to March/April. Neither league has more than 11 clubs taking part, which means an Indian footballer, if he starts every game, gets to play just around 20 league games on average in a season.
Another concern for Igor Stimac would be the lack of cup games for clubs. India has a multitude of tournaments spread across the country, however, the clubs have chosen not to participate with their full-strength teams. Then there is the Super Cup (which replaced the Federation Cup) which has been marred by controversies. The recent revival of the Durand Cup is a positive sign for Indian football but the top clubs either don't send their first teams or completely miss out on participation ( or aren't invited!). And it is at these clubs that the national team stars ply their trade.
What the lack of games has done is to provide all players with a lavish pre-season of at least five months. This is a rarity globally. Even if players do their best to stay in shape and train well, it won't be a substitute for match fitness and physical training provided by the top trainers employed by the clubs.
Stimac has come in and expressed how he wants his team to play. And going by the recent starts that India have had, most recently against Oman where they were brilliant for the first 45 minutes, there is a lot of promise. However, the team needs to finish the games off. There is no reward for scoring the first goal, playing well or leading at half-time.