Over the last weekend, the team prepared for the big test at a boot camp organised by the Indian army
An acid test awaits the Indian football team as they host higher-ranked Oman in the second round opening match of the AFC qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Bengaluru on Thursday.
Though India have made progress under Englishman Stephen Constantine, beating Nepal in a two-legged preliminary qualifier in March, the chief coach knows it's going to require an extraordinary effort to emerge with a victory against Oman who, at 101, are ranked 40 places higher than the hosts in the pecking order.
The side will be led by Arnab Mondal and not Subrata Paul, Constantine said on the eve of the match.
The Indians have been training with renewed vigour for these matches.
Last Saturday, Constantine put the team through a boot camp organised by the Indian Army on the ASC campus in Bengaluru. It was a team-building exercise, meant to help push the side over the line.
In the four meetings against Oman so far, India have conceded 11 goals while winning just one fixture, losing two and drawing one.
The last time the two teams clashed was in Muscat in February 2012 when Oman won the friendly 5-1. The visitors would be keen to repeat the win while India would be drawing some confidence from their 2-0 and 0-0 results against Nepal in the first round.
The match at the Kanteerva Stadium is a chance for Oman to erase the bad memories of narrowly missing out on qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.
Instead of the usual practice of choosing the experienced players, Constantine has pinned lot of hopes on young brigade, which is reflected in the 26 probables he picked, including the likes of Jackichand Singh, C K Vineeth, Dhanpal Ganesh and Sehnaj Singh.
Constantine will like to focus more on strengthening the middle of the field as he is wary of the Omani goal threat.
"Stephen Constantine is such an inspirational man. He always demands discipline – on and off the pitch. He is a great motivator besides being a shrewd tactician. His talks gives me goosebumps,” defender Sandesh Jhingan said.
"The other day Constantine took us to the Army Training Centre. It was a test of our psyche. When we first saw our Army jawans demonstrating, we all were shocked. But we went out of our comfort zone and took it on,” Jhingan, reflected.
“Constantine was one among the first to take up the challenge. That was an inspiration, an eye opener. Given his age, he raised the stakes. He just didn’t order. He led us. The first step was difficult. But once into it, you carried on,” Jhinghan added.
The task will be cut out for defenders Jhingan and captain Arnab Mondal.
Sehnaj Singh and Eugenson Lyngdoh - both will be easy picks as they performed exceedingly well this season.
Jackichand, who was voted as Player of the I-League, besides Vineeth or Seityasen Singh, will give a much-needed boost to Lyngdoh and Sehnaj.
Among the strikers, Constantine will have the services of Robin Singh and Sunil Chhetri, who have scored 46 goals between them for India.
Oman will enter the match as favourites though they are without the services of key players Jaber Al Owaisi and Mohammed Al Shiyabi, who have been ruled out due to injuries.
Oman coach Paul Le Guen will hope to get a good game out of Ali Salim Al Nahar, who has played 23 internationals.
Moreover, Guen will also heavily count on striker AbdulAziz Al Muqbali, who has the distinction of scoring a record 16 goals in 44 games.
Muqbali will be helped by Raed Ibrahim and Qasim Said, who bring to the table pace and deception. Number 10 Imad Al Hosni is another star campaigner, having scored 36 goals in 112 games.
Ali Al Habsi will man the goal for the visitors.
Besides Oman, the luck of the draw has pitted India in the same group as Iran, who are ranked 41, besides lowly Turkmenistan (173) Guam (174). With two teams to qualify for the next round, India will have to play out of their skins to make any progress.