India gets its FIFA World Cup 2022 and AFC Asian Cup 2023 qualification underway when it hosts Oman at the Indira Gandhi stadium in Guwahati on Thursday.
It will be Igor Stimac's first competitive game since taking charge of the Blue Tigers. Since he came in, the Croatian has gone about making wholesale changes to the team – from personnel to playing style.
His predecessor Stephen Constantine's direct football has been replaced by a possession-based, controlled game with an emphasis on building from the back. Those changes have had several players talking positively about what the Croatian has been trying to implement, and captain Sunil Chhetri stressed on it in his pre-match press conference.
"It has been a great (pre-World Cup) training camp minus the Amarjit (Singh Kiyam) debacle . The players have a lot of time to gel, to understand the new techniques and the boys are optimistic about the game," he said.
While there has been positive talk about everything Stimac has brought in, the results, however, haven't gone his way. India played five games across two friendly tournaments, the King's Cup in Thailand and the Intercontinental Cup at home. It won only once, losing three games before drawing one – scoring seven goals but conceding thirteen.
Stimac, though, isn't concerned about those results. "These two tournaments were organised before I was appointed, I would have done something different if it was up to me," he said, adding, "I did not like losing days for games rather than training, to be honest."
Defence a worry for India
Using 29 players across the five games, with as many as 30 changes to the starting line-up, was one big reason for India's porous defence. But beginning with the game against Oman on Thursday, there should be a more settled side on the pitch as Stimac has decided on what his best team is.
"The players are very clear about starting eleven for tomorrow's game. They have known for the last seven days," he said. "The rest are there, ready and fit. Each one who is participating (in the training camp) is ready. And we will follow their performances and form in the ISL (Indian Super League) and that will be base for sending invitations for future call-ups."
Like India, Oman also changed its coach since the Asian Cup. Dutchman Erwin Koeman has taken over the reins and he also hasn't had enough time to impart his ideas.
Unlike the host though, the visitor is on a three-game winning run. In Koeman's first assignment, Oman won the Airmarine Cup in Malaysia, a four-team friendly tournament, with a 5-0 trashing of Afghanistan and a penalty shootout win against Singapore. The third match was a 1-0 win against Yemen in a friendly.
India lost to Oman, home and away, at the same stage fours year ago. Three points tomorrow will be very vital, both in terms of qualification and in boosting the team's confidence ahead of a daunting away game against Qatar on September 10, and Chhetri knows it.
"I really hope the team has come a long [way] since our last meeting," he said, talking about the 1-2 defeat in Bengaluru in 2015. "One part of me feels that we can do it (win and progress to the next round) and we do have a great team. But of course the other teams are stronger and we can't make predictions. I just hope that when you compare (Thursday's game with the 1-2 defeat), it will be done in a happy way."