Captain Sunil Chhetri’s splendid first-half strike went in vain as India surrendered a one-goal advantage to lose 1-2 to Oman in their opening fixture of the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers, in Guwahati on Thursday.
The 87-ranked Oman turned it around in the last eight minutes of regulation time by scoring twice through Rabia Alawi Al Mandhar, leaving the hosts distraught. India will be left to rue the missed chances in the first half after a spirited second half performance from the visitors saw them secure full three points.
“It just happened. We were punished twice for mistakes. So late in the game to lose the point which would have left us in a good position to fight for the second place until the end,” India coach Igor Stimac said after the match, which also served as 2023 Asian Cup Qualifications.
The 35-year-old Chhetri, international football’s second highest scorer among active players, pushed India ahead in the 24th minute with his 72nd strike. However, Alawi Al broke Indian hearts when he flicked the ball past Gurpreet Singh Sandhu to restore parity in the 90th minute.
More disappointment was in store for the 103-ranked India as striker Alawi Al completed his brace in the 89th minute. India dominated the first half with more shots at opposition goal and also enjoyed possession.
Ashique Kuruniyan, who returned to the team after missing the Kings Cup and Intercontinental Cup due to injury, created problems for the Oman defence with his pace and trickery in the left channel. Following one such run down the left flank in the 24th minute, he was fouled by Abdulaziz Al Ghailani and India got a free kick on the left edge of the box.
Brandon Fernandes took the set piece, sent a grounder in the middle of the box and Chhetri fooled his marker to drill a left-footer into the Oman net, much to the celebration of a vociferous crowd.
Before that, India were denied lead in the 15th minute when Udanta Singh’s shot off a Chhetri pass beat the Omani goalkeeper but it struck the crossbar, to the dismay of the home side. Udanta was also denied a goal in a similar fashion against the UAE in the Asian Cup earlier in the year.
There were periods of incessant Indian attack in the first half and central defender Sandesh Jhingan sent the ball over the bar in a free header off a corner taken by Anirudh Thapa in the 20th minute.
Oman pressed hard in the closing stages of the first half and goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu made a great save in the 43rd minute, blocking a Ahmed Kano header in a one-to-one situation to keep India’s lead intact.
The visitors made a strong fightback in the second half to leave the home team disappointed. Seven minutes after he made use of a wonderful lofted ball from the deep, Alawi Al produced a fine strike from the edge of the box, sending the ball into the top corner of the Indian post.
India will next travel to Doha to face world Cup hosts Qatar in their next qualifier on September 10, with Afghanistan and Bangladesh being the other two teams that make up Group E.