India’s young squad braced for Oman challenge

The Indian football team will make their long-awaited return to international football after more than 490 days when they face Oman at the Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum Stadium in Dubai. Head coach Igor Stimac has chosen a young squad for the Blue Tigers’ upcoming friendlies against Oman (March 25) and UAE (March 29) after plenty of new faces staked their claim in the squad on the back of strong displays in Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) 2020-21.

Ahead of the match, the All Indian Football Federation (AIFF) spoke to some of the players –old as well as new – and young full-back Akash Mishra, who received a maiden call-up to the squad seemed excited about the upcoming challenge. “It’s a terrific challenge for us. But there’s no reason that we can’t rise to the occasion,” he said.

Jeakson Singh may not have enjoyed a good season with Kerala Blasters FC but like Akash, he too wants to make the most of his chances in national colours. “Since the U-17 World Cup there have been ups and downs. This is a unique opportunity for me. I can’t let it slip,” Jeakson insisted.

One youngster, in particular, from whom a lot is expected, is 20-year-old Lalengmawia, who was the Emerging Player of the League in the recently concluded Hero ISL campaign before he received his maiden call-up. “The Hero ISL is in the past. I need to look ahead. If we do it together, football is easy,” the NorthEast United FC midfielder said.

Meanwhile, some of the more experienced campaigners in the squad sounded relaxed. “These are practice matches which will help us to be better. We have come together after such a long time. We need to grab this opportunity. It’s extremely difficult to plan such international matches during the pandemic as it’s so difficult to get out of the country. We are extremely grateful to the AIFF,” Anirudh Thapa said.

Goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu believes that the upcoming friendlies can be the perfect preparation for the Blue Tigers’ World Cup qualifiers slated for June. “It is a great opportunity to play against both Oman and UAE.  We have played against them so often and respect them as a team, as much as I feel they respect us. We have important games coming up in June and the timing of these Friendlies just couldn’t get better,” the Bengaluru FC custodian said.

Fellow custodian Amrinder Singh voiced similar thoughts and highlighted how the friendlies were perfect for the squad to test themselves. “As we are playing for the first time after November 2019, we need to test ourselves – both the newcomers and the rest. The matches will help us gauge where we stand at the moment. We need to stay focused,” he stressed.

Sandesh Jhingan, who is making his return to the national team after an injury layoff, feels that India can more than hold their own against Oman and UAE. “Oman and UAE are not way ahead. Everyone will agree that we need to play tough opponents. I can proudly say that we are almost neck-and-neck with them. The growth of Indian Football has been immense and it’s not that Oman and UAE are way ahead of us. In the past few games, they did get the better of us, but the matches were extremely close,” Jhingan explained.

National team head coach Igor Stimac also shared his thoughts on the players at his disposal. “They are good boys who are extremely talented. They are boys who can play and run without fear and pass with precision. My job is to guide them for Indian Football to develop forward together,” the Croat said.


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