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India v Oman

India vs Oman: Igor Stimac gets it right but the defence lets him down

18:02 BST 05/09/2019
Igor Stimac India Oman WCQ
India were on course for a fantastic 1-0 win but then Al Mandhar decided to show up...

It was nearly India's day in Guwahati. A couple of excellent saves by Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and a clever free-kick by Brandon leading to the 72nd goal in national colours for Sunil Chhetri had India 1-0 up for 82 minutes of their 2022 World Cup qualifier aga.

However, things quickly went downhill for a tired team which looked shaky at the back in the final few minutes. Al Mandhar, the Oman midfielder who hadn't done much in front of goal for most of the game, turned up when it mattered and netted two vital goals for the away team, snatching three points away from the hosts in a painful manner.

India's approach to not press too far up the field worked well in the first half as Oman were forced to find a way through a compact set-up beyond the halfway line. Igor Stimac got his starting line-up spot on, with the Bengaluru FC trio of Udanta Singh, Ashique Kuruniyan and Sunil Chhetri leading the pack. And any doubts over starting Brandon Fernandes in place of Sahal Abdul Samad were quickly dispelled by the FC Goa midfielder who put on a fine show in behind Sunil Chhetri (and also all over the field). 

It was Brandon's vision and passing that helped India threaten the Oman goal early on. Ashique Kuruniyan seemed to have the left flank all to himself, with the right side of Oman defence having no clue on how to halt the Kerala trickster. 

A clever free-kick routine worked well for India as they broke the deadlock in the 24th minute. However, it was also a laughable piece of defending by the away side, who were caught napping by the free-kick taker Brandon who rolled the ball into the path of Chhetri. The skipper caressed the ball into the net as the entire defence stood watching as if they were watching a highlight reel in slow motion. 

Everything they did for the first half-hour set them up towards an impressive 1-0 win but the tables soon turned. In fact, Stimac's tactics were spot on in the first half. Not only did India blunt Oman effectively but also troubled their defence. Oman did not trouble the Indian defence apart from a moment late in the half when a lack of communication between Sandesh Jhingan and Rahul Bheke saw an Omani forward get a point-blank header away, which was saved by an excellent Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.

At the other end, Udanta Singh struck the post after a poor kick from the Omani goalkeeper. Jhingan had a free header go just over from an Anirudh Thapa delivery while Ashique caused a few flutters in the backline with his persistence.

But as seen in recent games, Indian players lost the momentum in the final quarter and looked lethargic in their attempts to win possession. Oman turned up the heat as expected and whatever Erwin Koeman told his team at the break seemed to work. 

Quite incredibly, it didn't seem as if Oman came up with a new strategy to carve open the Indian defence - it looked to be a matter of the whole team being out of breath. Rahul Bheke, who has not had a great national team stint since making his debut for the Blue Tigers, cracked under pressure once again. The rest of the Indian backline did not cover themselves in glory either. 

A lofted ball from the deep had the defence in disarray and an alert Al Mandhar ghosted past the Indian defence and poked the ball past Gurpreet, with Bheke particularly at fault for letting his man run easily past him. He would then fail to nick the ball in front of his marker, allowing Al Mandhar to turn him easily and run into the penalty box. He would cut in and find the top corner to make it 2-1 in the 90th minute. The crowd which had cheered on top of their voice for the entire 90 minutes had their hearts broken. They were so close. 

Oman took their chances but were there for the taking. They did not threaten India much for 80 minutes and should have been a man down (for a dirty stomp by Abdulaziz on Ashique Kuriniyan in the second half).

India could have started their campaign with a win, but not today. Igor Stimac, who did everything right, would be distraught. However, at the end of the day, there is no taking away from the fact that India have made huge strides in the continent.

They stood toe to toe with a West Asian giant like Oman and came out with their heads held high, though not with the deserved three points, as the opposition coach Erwin Koeman himself admitted.