There is renewed hope as India begin their 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign against Oman on September 5 in Guwahati.
Only seven months ago, an injury-time penalty by Bahrain's Jamal Rashid broke Indian hearts and sent the national team packing from the 2019 AFC Asian Cup held in UAE. This was despite a brilliant show against Thailand and encouraging signs against hosts UAE in the first two group games. Against Bahrain, the failure to put pressure in their half and a willingness to adopt a deeper block cost India and they paid the price.
India are about to begin another important campaign in their quest to be recognised as one of the Asian teams in contention for a World Cup participation. And this time around, they have a new head coach, a new-look squad and a different football philosophy that they are trying to perfect.
Former Croatia national team coach Igor Stimac is a big name in world football. He knows how to deal with pressure but his patience will be tested when trying to implement a new football strategy on a new bunch of players. The Croatian wants his team to get on the ball and pass it around the field to find gaps, penetrate the attacking third and aggressively move in search of goals.
From the first few games under the new gaffer, the change in approach is crystal clear. There is a persistence to keep the ball on the ground when building from the back and in transition, there are riskier forays in behind the defence, regardless of the in-game scenarios. The Blue Tigers may well be two goals up or down but the mantra remains unchanged - pass and move.
His attempt to slowly tweak things around is very evident in his squad selections as well. Comparing Stimac's probable squad with the Asian Cup set, there are 13 new players (not necessarily debutants) in the camp. Of these at least 10 have been handed debuts by the new gaffer himself, signalling a change in direction for the team.
Manvir Singh, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Brandon Fernandes, Amarjit Singh, Sahal Abdul Samad, Raynier Fernandes, Nikhil Poojary, Mandar Rao Dessai, Adil Khan, Narender Gahlot, Nishu Kumar, Rahul Bheke and Kamaljit Singh are the ones who have been either recalled or newly selected by Stimac. There is a definitive affinity towards a passing game, with the likes of Anirudh Thapa and Sahal being technically adept in the midfield to link plays.
A change in style consumes time and it will be important for India to find the right balance during the transitional phase. New players climbing the first team ladder at Indian clubs are showing the potential to be able to play how Stimac wants the national team to play.
There are concerns at the back and Amarjit's injury blow will affect the solidity of India's midfield, given he has been the most impressive player under Stimac's reign so far. While results aren't guaranteed by a mere change in approach, it makes India more appealing at the global stage and the team won't be a one-trick pony during a challenging campaign.