Indian football team head coach Igor Stimac had made his wishlist clear to his players before the Oman game. He wanted them to play fearless football without any pressure, be more effective in the final third and compete physically for the whole duration of the game against stronger opponents.
At the end of the ninety minutes at Maktoum Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Stadium in Dubai, the Croatian got his wishes partly granted.
For Manvir Singh’s goal, India were as precise as they have ever been in the final third under Stimac. Bipin Singh’s sumptuous cross was put away by the ATK Mohun Bagan forward as India, very much against the run of play, produced a moment of real quality.
Against a physically superior Oman, India were often second-best but did well to not be overwhelmed by the strength of Branko Ivankovic’s team. In fact, the Blue Tigers grew into the game and looked more comfortable as the game wore on.
But as far as playing fearless football is concerned, India fell short. There were nerves aplenty in the Indian side that had six debutants in the starting line-up. The Blue Tigers often rushed their passes in an attempt to bypass the Omani press but lacked precision. They lost the ball cheaply on way too many occasions especially in the first half, allowing Oman to completely dominate proceedings.
India were no match to Oman’s intensity in the first half which they spent thwarting waves after waves of Omani attacks. They were fortunate to be just one goal behind at the break after Al Muqbali missed a penalty for Oman.
The likes of Jeakson Singh and Suresh Singh were replaced after rather underwhelming performances but the duo weren’t debutants who let the nerves get the better of them. Ashutosh Mehta, who is vastly experienced in league football, was patchy at times, misplacing passes and allowing lapses in concentration. Upfront Bipin Singh seemed lost in the first half. Chinglensana Singh dealt with most of the danger well but threw himself on the floor leading to an own goal. Even Akash Mishra, who was so impressive in the Indian Super League seemed a tad nervous.
However, Stimac’s changes and a few calming words at half time produced a much-improved display in the second essay. Credit for the uptick in performance levels must be given to Stimac’s substitutions who impacted the game positively.
Apuia, who came on in place of Rowllin Borges, at the interval had the greatest impact among the debutants. He seemed to have those extra seconds on the ball and was able to link the play much better than any player on the field. His energy at the heart of the field helped India find outlets that they didn’t have in the first half.
Even Mohammad Yasir who came on around the hour mark made a positive contribution. After a breakthrough season with Hyderabad FC, the attacking midfielder was able to maintain his levels even in the national colours.
However, India’s best moment of the game was all Bipin Singh’s creation. The winger, who had the highest goal contributions by an Indian player in the ISL last season, had a quiet evening until he unleashed an inch-perfect cross for Manvir Singh to head home. Everything about the cross was so right that there was no way that Manvir would miss. After several games where Indian attacking players had failed to deliver the right quality in promising positions, Bipin Singh came up trumps to justify his selection to the side.
The second half also saw improvements from Mehta and Chinglensana who kept their focus well despite a late onslaught from Oman.
Overall, there were many aspects that needed improvement from India and on another day they could have come unstuck. But the way they dug deep in the second half despite not being at their best to eke out a good result against a superior team that seemed in better physical condition would come as a huge boost for Igor Stimac.
He had made a bold selection by involving so many fresh faces in the squad for these friendlies but after their first test, they have earned the right to be trusted for a slightly longer haul.
An even more formidable opponent awaits India and its inexperienced players in the shape of hosts UAE, but a game under their belt would have settled some nerves and Stimac will expect his fresh recruits to further unleash their potential on the international stage.