Defensive frailties on show again
One of the big talking points in the build-up to this match was India's weak defence. In the five matches at the King's Cup and the Intercontinental Cup, the team had conceded 13 goals with most of them down to mistakes at the back. Four of those were let in with 20 minutes left on the clock.
Two more were conceded in the same period against Oman.
While India dominated the first half and took a deserved lead through Sunil Chhetri, the defence was caught napping on two occasions. First, by Ali Al Busaidi's chip to Abdulaziz Al Maqbali, and later by Raed Saleh's cross into the box. On both occasions, India needed Gurpreet Singh Sandhu at his athletic best to keep Oman at bay.
Against Tajikistan in the Intercontinental Cup, India had taken a similar lead into the second half but ended up conceding four in the final 45 minutes. Multiple training sessions and a dedicated pre-World Cup training camp later, nothing has changed.
Midfield pair gelling well
On the eve of the match, both Chhetri and head coach Igor Stimac had discussed the impact of Amarjit Singh Kiyam — ruled out due to a hand injury — on the team; what his absence meant.
The performance of Rowllin Borges and Anirudh Thapa against Oman raised hopes. It is safe to say that the 18-year-old need not be rushed back to the team. The pair, playing in a pivot, complemented each other. Rowllin was a defensive rock in the first half while Thapa kept things ticking for India.
When defending, they stayed in constant communication with the centre-backs and when in possession, they knew exactly where their team-mates are. The duo had the composure to keep the ball out when chased down by the opponent. Ashique Kuruniyan and Udanta Singh were regularly found, throughout the first half, with simple long balls.
This could be India's first-choice midfield double act for the rest of the qualifying campaign.
Not a one-man show
When playing against India, most of the opponents plan their game around Chhetri. Contain the captain and you contain the team. Well, not anymore. The trio of Ashique, Udanta and Brandon Fernandes stretched the Oman defence with ease. With pace to burn, they played on the shoulders of the last defender for the most part and broke free on occasions. All they lacked was the finishing touch.
Ashique, in particular, looked excellent in his link-up play with the skipper. With both of them at Bengaluru FC now, their understanding is only going to improve when they start playing together regularly.
Lack of a successor
"We didn't have enough experience in scoring. We always depend on Sunil for goals," Stimac said after the game. That seems to be the case irrespective of which coach is in charge of India or what tactics are employed. Of the eight goals scored under the Croatian, five have been scored by the skipper. For all the attacking play by those around him, no one threatens the opposition goal like Chhetri does.
The worrying part is the lack of a successor in the Indian ranks. I. M. Vijayan had Bhaichung Bhutia, who was then followed by Chhetri. But who next?
Last season in the Indian Super League, there were only 38 Indians who entered the scoreboard. Of them, six were defenders, 19 midfielders and 13 strikers. With nine goals, Chhetri was the highest-scoring Indian – seven behind golden boot winner Ferran Corominas. In the top ten scores, only two other Indians appear, Lallinzuala Chhangte and Udanta Singh, and neither are strikers.
Chhetri has also been the highest-scoring Indian in three of the four ISL seasons he played in.
The I-League is worse off when it comes to Indian scorers. Pedro Manzi and Willis Plaza scored 21 goals each while Jobby Justin, the Indian with the best output, scored just nine.
Slowly but steadily, Stimac's principles coming into play
Despite the disappointing loss to Oman, there are quite a few positives to take ahead of the daunting trip to Qatar. Stimac promised to completely change the style and the players are reacting well. The hurried clearances and unending long balls are a thing of the past. In its place are quick passes, rotation of possession and creating chances by finding gaps across the backline.
Young players have been drafted into the team and they seem eager to make a mark. The midfield and attack have taken to his methods quickly, making the cohesion very pleasing on the eye.