Winless in four games so far in an increasingly disappointing campaign, the Indian football team faces higher-ranked Oman in a do-or-die World Cup qualifying round match here on Tuesday.
A first-half strike from Sunil Chhetri gave India hopes of beating Oman in the first leg in Guwahati in September but it ultimately turned out to be so-near-yet-so-far as the Gulf nation struck twice in the final 10 minutes to outwit the home side.
Oman are coming into this match after an emphatic (4-1) win over Bangladesh here on November 14.
India, on the other hand, are struggling after an impressive goal-less draw against Asian champions Qatar as they needed late equalisers in their identical 1-1 draws against lower-ranked Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
After three draws and a defeat, India are fourth in the Group E table with three points while Oman are second with nine points from four matches. Qatar are on top with 10 points from four matches.
An upset win over Oman will certainly keep Igor Stimac’s side in the hunt for a next round berth but a loss will virtually send India out of reckoning as far as the 2022 World Cup qualification is concerned.
If India lose, they will trail Oman by nine points and have only three matches — maximum nine points — left to play in this second round of the qualifiers.
Even the runner-up sides from the eight groups are not guaranteed an automatic spot in the third round of the qualifiers.
A draw against Oman will also make it difficult for India to qualify for the next round. Their last three matches — all to be played next year — are against Qatar (at home on March 26), Bangladesh (away, June 4) and Afghanistan (at home, June 9).
But getting a least a point against Oman may prove crucial as it will make it easier for India to get an automatic third round berth for the 2023 Asian Cup qualifiers.
This campaign is also a joint qualifying round for the 2023 Asian Cup and the third-placed teams and the best four fourth placed teams from the eight groups automatically get a spot in the third round of the qualifiers of the continental championships.
Stimac’s side has struggled not just in defence but four matches into this campaign, it is also clear that its offence is also not in the best of form.
India is no longer dependent on only Chhetri to score the goals but the inability to convert the chances has cost the team dear.
Stimac has no illusion about who is the favourite on Tuesday but he is also hoping that his players will convert the chances which come their way and score goals.
“Oman are much better now than the team we played against in Guwahati. They are the favourites. We know for a fact that match is going to be very difficult for us,” the high profile Croatian coach said.
Historically too, India are the underdogs, having not won any of the 11 matches they have played against Oman who have emerged victorious on eight occasions.
Before the Guwahati match in September, the two sides played out a 0-0 draw in the run-up to the 2019 Asian Cup in the UAE. In the two legs of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers played in 2015, India had lost to Oman 0-3 in Muscat before a 1-2 defeat in Bangalore.
India will still be without senior central defender Anas Edathodika as he returned home before the Afghanistan match due to a family emergency, dealing a further blow to a team which has lost the services of Sandesh Jhingan, Rowling Borges and Amarjit Singh due to injuries.