'What could've been!'
Indian football has heard this refrain for a while now and although most of it has been hyperbole, at no time has it felt truer than the present. On a muggy Thursday night in Guwahati, India took the game to Oman in the first half, and were rewarded with the lead. They then sat back and allowed wave after wave of Omani attack on their goal, and paid for it, conceding two late goals to lose the game 1-2.
The defeat means India's chances of finishing in the top two in the group, and thereby qualifying for the next round of World Cup qualifying - as well as the 2023 Asian Cup - are hanging by a thread.
But it could have been so different. For 45 minutes, Indian football dreamed. In the next 45, old flaws resurfaced to bring them crashing back to earth.
The home team were excellent before the break; they dominated possession for vast swathes, created chances and kept Oman pegged in their own half. Having constantly experimented throughout his short stint, Igor Stimac continued in the same vein, fielding a sixth different XI for his sixth match in charge. Eyebrows were raised when Sahal Abdul Samad, arguably the one who's impressed most under the Croat, was kept on the bench but the changes seemed to work perfectly.
Rowllin Borges dropped deep to help build play and keep things calm. Udanta Singh did Udanta Singh things, stretching play on the right, too fast for anyone in the Oman defence to handle. Brandon Fernandes controlled the tempo on the left, cutting in to zip balls across the field. Anirudh Thapa was everywhere, pinging superb crossfield shots and balls in behind the defence for the two up front to chase.
Up top, Stimac opted to start the just-back-from-injury Ashique Kuruniyan alongside Sunil Chhetri and you could immediately see why. Kuruniyan can be a frustrating figure -- he can hold on to the ball for longer than he should and his end product is often wayward -- but when he gets it right, he's brilliant. More often than not, he got it right in that first half.
Sunil Chhetri, meanwhile, was all controlled aggression, leading the intense press from the front, making intelligent runs to create space for those around him. It wasn't hard to see why, even at 35 years young, he was India's best player.
When Chhetri put his team in front in the 24th minute, few could complain that they weren't worth the lead. The goal itself was a thing of beauty. Every element of it.
First, the foul. Kuruniyan had, within the opening few phases of play, already outwitted the Omani right back, Abdulaziz Al Ghailani. An audacious nutmeg had led to a chance a minute before the foul, and when he started running at Al Ghailani again, you knew the Omani was going to take him out.
Second, the routine. Having come close to scoring though a towering Sandesh Jhingan header off a corner minutes previously, it seemed the obvious way to go - flood the box with the big men and ping one into the melee. They set it up exactly like that, everyone in the six-yard box, and the Omani defenders were back on their heels, prepared for the aerial battle they assumed was coming. Instead, Brandon pulled it square, Chhetri peeled off his marker and met it around the penalty spot.
Third, the finish. Oh, the finish. Sure, ludicrous Omani defending meant that Chhetri had had an acre of space around him, but it still took a peach of a finish to smash it first time with his weaker left foot, clean through the mass of red and blue in front of goal. His 72nd goal for India, few of which might have felt as momentous.
India kept pressing, forcing the opposition into mistakes, disrupting their rhythm, not allowing them to control the ball but they couldn't convert their own half-chances and chances into something more substantial. Around the 40-minute mark, they started to sit deeper, and that's when the trouble began. An immense reflex save from Gurpreet Singh Sandhu at his near post, off an Abdulaziz Al Maqbali header from about five yards in the 43rd minute, kept India's lead safe as the half-time whistle blew, but it was Oman who had the momentum going into the break.
The second half was all Oman. Complete domination of possession saw the visiting side push India deeper and deeper, the home side retreating willingly. You could see the goals coming from a mile off.
In hindsight, Stimac's substitutions didn't help things one bit. Introducing Lallianzuala Chhangte for the impressive Brandon meant India got more running power, but lost the control that the FC Goa midfielder had so adeptly exhibited all match. Kuruniyan was taken off because he ran himself into the ground, but his replacement Manvir Singh barely got a touch of the ball -- the sight of him half-heartedly cutting down passing lanes while Chhetri tried to keep up a full press, was particularly jarring. India missed Sahal's calmness on the ball, and he was introduced with barely 20 seconds left to play.
India's man-of-the-match, Sandhu, kept Oman at bay till the 83rd minute - the pick of his saves coming when Thapa inadvertently smashed a clearance toward the top corner of his own net, a last-second glove palming it away. The late Al Mandhar Al Alawi brace - one coming off a superb ball that took the Indian defence out of the equation, and the other a stunning solo finish - meant new Oman coach Erwin Koeman kept his 100% record intact (four wins from four matches). With that substantially improved second-half display, Oman had well and truly earned the win.
After the game, Stimac would suggest his team deserved more from this game, saying that two mistakes had cost them, but the harsh reality of the situation was that they got exactly what they merited. India's midfield was never cut out for sitting back and absorbing pressure. The lot of them are better on the ball than off it, and it was inexplicable why they allowed Oman such comfortable possession for the entirety of the second half.
Perhaps it was their fitness levels; many players looked dead on their feet by the end. Perhaps it was the mentality, assuming that a 1-0 lead was good enough. When listening to Chhetri speak post-match, it was hard not to get a sense of déjà vu. "We misplaced too many passes." "We should have kept the ball more." "The boys fought hard." The same things that the distraught skipper had said after India's AFC Cup exit earlier this year.
And that's why it was such a bitter pill to swallow for the Indian fan. When will all this change? The first half had been such a breath of fresh air that it was hard to fault them for trusting that their team had finally turned a corner.
There were enough promising signs in there to suggest they still well could, but this result will give further ammunition to those who believe that nothing is going to come off investing time and loyalty in Indian football. For those on the other side, this was -- as that tired old cliché goes -- heartbreaking. For 83 minutes, India were beating Oman in a World Cup qualifier.
Oh, what could've been.