India begin their 2022 FIFA World Cup qualification campaign in the Second Round of the Asian Qualifiers with a home fixture against Oman on Thursday.

Another FIFA World Cup qualification campaign and another chance for the Indian football team to take a giant step towards becoming a household name in world football. India have been clubbed in Group E of the Asian Second Round Qualifiers alongside hosts Qatar and the likes of Oman, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

India are the third best ranked nation in the group, behind Qatar and Oman. But, they are in with a good chance, especially with hosts Qatar in their group. Should they finish second in the Group, they will still qualify for the Third Round directly. To achieve it though, India must overcome the test of Oman, who, interestingly, are their first opponents.

Oman, like India, have a new manager at the helm, following a successful spell from the respective previous manager. The match is scheduled to take place in Guwahati at the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium on Thursday at 1930 IST. But, it is the away side that will go into it with an advantage, based on preparation and fitness.

Oman have played friendlies and their new manager Erwin Koeman took the squad to Germany for intensity training and friendlies with local teams. India, on the other hand, are coming into the match without any preparation of sorts, with off-season the theme among the players, despite the preparatory camp in Goa.

Team News & Tactics

India

Igor Stimac has experimented with the lineups so far in the Intercontinental Cup in Ahmedabad in search of the right combinations and starting eleven. The Oman fixture though, should see a first glimpse of what the Indian team would look like under Stimac.

While India mostly fielded a 4-4-2 under Stephen Constantine, Stimac seems to prefer a 4-2-3-1 shape, which is considered the modern staple formation. Sunil Chhetri is set to be the star attraction for India in what will be his last attempt to make history in the World Cup Qualifiers.

But, there is a problem at the back as to the centre-back partner for Sandesh Jhingan. Anas Edathodika may have returned from his retirement to help out the team. But, Stimac is likely to go with the rather inexperienced but more in-form Rahul Bheke.

Jhingan and Bheke should have Pritam Kotal and Subhasish Bose on either side of them to provide more cover to the Indian goal, which is to be shielded by pioneer Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. Amrinder Singh is also a quality option in goal, but Gurpreet should be preferred for now.

The midfield pivot is the most important position against Oman, who are likely to be more dominant on the ball. Anirudh Thapa is a shoe-in to be one of the two, with the other spot to be contested by Vinit Rai and Rowlin Borges.

Amarjit Singh is also an outside contender. But, the 18-year-old is sidelined for the initial matches against Oman and Qatar and was unlikely to be considered for a such a high-stakes game either way. If Stimac opts for experience in defensive midfield, Borges will be the man. Otherwise, Rai will accompany Thapa in the midfield pivot.

Udanta Singh has locked his place down on the right side of the attack, with Lallianzual Chhangte to start on the left. Stimac has Brandon Fernandes and Sahal Abdul Samad as the options to be the number 10, with the latter likely to start ahead of Fernandes. Sunil Chhetri rounds out the starting eleven.

Probable Lineup (4-2-3-1): Gurpreet; Kotal, Jhingan, Bheke, Bose; Thapa, Borges; Udanta, Samad, Chhangte; Chhetri

Oman

Ahmed Al Rawahi and Jamil Al Yahmadi are sidelined for the fixture and hence, have not travelled for the match in India. The squad though, is still strong, with Erwin Koeman bringing in all the heavyweights for the World Cup qualification campaign. The manager, like Stimac, prefers a 4-2-3-1 setup.

The contrast in the age is similar to India, with 34-year-old Ahmed Kano the vital cog in their setup. On the other hand, young striker Arshad Al Alawi, who was one of the standout stars in the 2016 AFC Under-16 Championships, has also been called up for the Qualifiers.

Interestingly, there are no changes expected in defence from the squad that took the field in what was Pim Verbeek’s last competitive game in charge of Oman, that ended in a 2-0 defeat to Iran. 31-year-old Fayz Al Rushaidi should start in goal for Oman, with a back four of Saad Suhail, Mohammed Al Musalami, Khalid Al Braiki and Ali Al Busaidi to protect the goal.

Mataz Saleh should start in the midfield pivot, with Mohammed Al Hosni. Ahmed Kano will be the number 10 and the most important player for Oman in the Qualifiers. While Raed Ibrahim Saleh prefers the left flank, the 27-year-old will be on the right, with Mohsin Al Khaldi on the left. 34-year-old Mohammed Al Ghassani will spearhead the Oman attack against India.

Probable Lineup (4-2-3-1): Al Rushaidi; Suhail, Al Musalami, Al Braiki, Al Busaidi; Mataz Saleh, Al Hosni; Raed Saleh, Kano, Mohsin; Al Ghassani

Key Stats

1. India have a very poor record against Oman in the head-to-head, with the hosts recording just 1 win in 7 meetings with the away side.

2. Out of the two countries’ squads, only Oman star Raed Salah is the player who is currently playing in Europe. The 27-year-old is playing for Maltese club Valletta.

3. India have scored in all five of their recorded games under the tutelage of Igor Stimac so far.

4. India have kept a clean sheet in just one of the aforementioned five matches.

5. Sunil Chhetri has scored 19 goals in his last 19 matches for India since 2016 – 6 from 7 matches in 2019 so far.

Player to Watch

Anirudh Thapa

A vital vital presence in the Indian midfield against Oman. (Picture Courtesy - AFP/Getty Images)

A vital presence in the Indian midfield against Oman. (Picture Courtesy – AFP/Getty Images)

This fixture will be the first litmus test for India under Igor Stimac’s philosophy and Anirudh Thapa will be an important member of the starting eleven. The 21-year-old has not only established himself firmly as a regular in the National Team, but is also one of the more experienced stars, in terms of appearances, in the squad called up by Stimac for the Qualifiers.

It will be important to not lose the midfield battle to Oman and even if the Indians do end up losing, the vital thing will be to close off spaces in midfield for Oman to pass around the ball. Thapa’s ball retention and vision will be the two weapons India would look towards to bail them out against Oman.

Prediction

India 1-1 Oman

India will get a strong reception and support in Guwahati for their Second Round Qualification opener. With Qatar the obvious choice to top the group, it will come down to a head-to-head fight between India and Oman for the second spot, which provides a direct entry into the Third Round of the Qualifiers.

The Indians have looked to play positive football under Igor Stimac, who will likely stick to his philosophy in order to develop his preferred brand or style of football in the National Squad. Oman, on the other hand, have, in Erwin Koeman, a manager with a similar essence of developing a brand of football, like his brother Ronald Koeman, the current coach of the Dutch National Team.

It will be an enticing encounter, with home advantage likely to spur India on. The home side’s record under Stimac might not reflect a true image of the National Team, with the manager experimenting in most of his matches. Oman may be slight favourites owing to their fitness and preparation.

But, India should put up a spirited fight against Oman. We expect India to come out unscathed from the match, with a point likely to be pocketed by both the sides.

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