7/22/2019 1:57:32 AM (GMT+3)

Stimac’s biggest worry is unsettled central defence

Stimac’s biggest worry is unsettled central defence

NEW DELHI: India started their 2018 World Cup qualifiers against Oman (losing 1-2) on June 11, 2015 in Bangalore.

For the 2022 World Cup qualifiers, they kick-off their Group E campaign with a home match (venue to be decided) against Oman on September 5.

The only link between the Indian teams of 2015 and 2019 will be the evergreen Sunil Chettri as the entire squad has changed. Arnab Mondal, goalkeeper Subrata Paul, defenders Rino Anto, Lalchhuanmawia and Dhanachandra Singh and forwards CK Vineeth and Robin Singh, who played four years ago, have got eclipsed and are not considered for the national team.

India’s World Cup qualifying group may appear easier than it was in 2015-16, but there are many stumbling blocks ahead.

On September 10, India meet Asian champions Qatar in an away match. The durability, bench strength and mental toughness of Igor Stimac’s new-look Indian team will be severely tested within a space of five days, which will include travel and acclimatization.

Is the new look Indian team better than that of 2015? Time alone will provide the answer.

The approach of both the national coaches differs. Stephen Constantine, who coached from February, 2015 till January, 2019, opted for a pragmatic approach, “parking the bus” tactics and playing on the counter attack.

The Croat’s approach is possession-based football building from the back with short passes instead of just relying on quick counter-attacks.

He has chosen players with sound technical ability with the ball, rather than just strength and height. Hence midfielders Amarjit Singh Khayyam, Sahal Abdul Samad and Anirudh Thapa, left-back Mandar Rao Dessai and speedy winger Lallianzuala Chhangte have all featured prominently in Stimac’s teams so far. The average height of the Indian playing eleven against Tajikstan and Syria in the recent Inter-continental Cup was the shortest in a decade.

Sturdy defender Narender Gehlot was the only newcomer with a good height and physique.

Constantine’s task was much tougher. In 2015, he started his second stint with World Cup qualifiers preliminary round home and away matches against Nepal on March 12 and 17. Due to the ongoing 8th I-League (which finished on May 31) there were no friendly matches, and his third match was the WC qualifier against Oman. So the Englishman was searching for his best playing eleven during the World Cup qualifiers four summers ago.

In contrast, Stimac had five matches to experiment, two in the King’s Cup in Thailand in June and three in the recent Intercontinental Cup in Ahmedabad. Creditably, the former Croatian national coach used these matches to gauge the match temperament, technical skills and confidence of the players at his disposal.

He has made a total of 35 changes in his five starting XIs for India so far and he has not hesitated from giving younger players like Abdul Samad (spotted in Inter-University matches in Kerala), Gehlot and Amarjit a chance in the senior team.

Under Stimac, India has won and drawn one match each but lost three games -- conceded 13 and scored seven. It means, the biggest worry for him will be an unsettled central defence. With Sandesh Jhingan injured and Anas Edathodika still not match-fit, the defence is vulnerable.

Rahul Bheke and Gehlot played well against Syria, but it was a match with no pressure for the hosts after having lost two they could not qualify for the final. Another cause for concern is that the fluent, but short-statured midfield could get bull dozed by able bodied west Asians and Afghan players in the World Cup qualifiers and that would blunt India’s attack.

The biggest worry is that there’s no specialist striker besides Chettri.

With Jeje Lalpekhlua recovering after surgery and Balwant Singh ageing, lack of goal-scorers could be India’s Achilles heel.

By the end of 2019, India’ prospects in this group will be known. They play Bangladesh at home on October 15, then away games against Afghanistan on November 14 and Oman on November 19. India should by then have bagged at least five points to be in the reckoning to finish second in the group.

Losses in the away matches to Oman and Qatar seem inevitable so Team India

must win their home match against lower-ranked Bangladesh and try to salvage draws against Oman at home and against Afghanistan away (it maybe at a neutral venue due to the troubled conditions in Afghanistan). Otherwise, progress to the next round of WC qualifiers (eight group winners and four best runners up) will be a mirage. (Pic: AIFF/Twitter)