India will go into their inaugural match of the 2018 Fifa World Cup qualifiers tonight—they play Oman in Bengaluru in the first leg of a home-and-away format—with a young and largely untested squad. It is how Stephen Constantine, India’s English coach, likes it. Back for a second stint with the team this year, Constantine was influential in his first foray from 2002-2005, where he dragged the team out of limbo, all the while focusing on unearthing fresh talent, and setting up a functional youth system. This time, he is back to take care of “unfinished business" he told reporters. The first order of that business will be guiding the team through the qualifiers.
Tonight, the team will depend on the experience of striker Sunil Chettri, India’s top goalscorer, and the veteran goalkeeper Subrata Paul—but the rest of the playing XI will feature those who have caught Constantine’s eye in the four months that he has been in the country since his reappointment. The coach could not have done better than to go with the tight, young unit who have brought so much success to the recently formed I-League club Bengaluru FC—winners of the league in their debut season last year, and runners up this season.
The Bengaluru fullbacks Rino Anto and Lalchhuan Mawua are tipped to make their debut for the national team. East Bengal’s Arnab Mondal will marshal the centre of defence. Despite struggling this season with his form, Mondal has impressed Constantine enough to retain his spot—to boost his confidence, the coach has also made him captain for this match. Sandesh Jhingan, the most exciting central defender to emerge in recent years, has been ruled out with a shoulder injury, and Constantine will have a tough task slotting in a replacement.
The Indian midfield, almost always the weakest part of the team, has also been shaken up: Another Bengaluru star, Eugeneson Lyngdoh is expected to make his debut in the heart of the midfield, and control the play, with I-League champion Mohun Bagan’s defensive midfielder Sehnaj Singh slotting in behind Lyngdoh. The most experienced man in this part of the field will be the Goan winger Francis Fernandes—and he has made just 26 appearances for the national team. The Manipur and Royal Wahingdoh winger Jakichand Singh (yes, he is named after Jackie Chan), who had a strong I League season (he was player of the season), will play in just his second match for India.
With so many players from Bengaluru FC in the squad, the team will expect a strong, partisan crowd in Bengaluru tonight. Bengaluru FC was particularly successful in getting fans to the stadium through its outreach and social media initiatives, and that effect should spill over. It will be a crucial boost for the Indian team, used to playing without much crowd support.
While Oman, ranked 97 in the world against India’s 147, will provide stiff competition, even harder challenges lie ahead for India in this qualification round. They also have Iran in the draw, the top ranked Asian team, and number 40 in the world rankings. The other two in the group, Turkmenistan and Guam, are the teams India will look to get their points off.
This is the second round of Asian qualifiers (India made it through the first with wins against Nepal), and will run till March 2016, with eight groups of four teams each in the fray. The countries that finish at the top of each group, and the four best second-finishers will then move on to the third and final qualification round, and will also automatically qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup.
With Iran in the fray India is not expected to top their group, but it will hope to be among the best four runner-up teams, and qualify for only their second Asian Cup in four decades. India vs Oman World Cup Qualifier is scheduled for a 7pm IST. Live coverage on Sony Six.