FIFA World Cup Qualifiers 2022: Under-pressure Igor Stimac desperate for positive results in final three games
So far, Igor Stimac somehow didn’t do enough to make his players play as a team. Can the next three matches change the perception?
It’s time again for Indian men’s football team to overcome the trials and tribulations of FIFA World Cup qualifiers. Of course, for practical purposes, the final goal is not about qualifying for the main event in Qatar. The ultimate aim for head coach Igor Stimac and his team is to finish third in their group and make it to the third round of the AFC Asian Cup qualifications. They can finish fourth and still book an automatic spot in the third round of the qualification but they have to be among the four best fourth-placed teams. Failure to achieve the goal, the team then has to make its way via a playoff round.
India are currently fourth in their group behind Qatar, Oman and Afghanistan. They have three points from five matches, two more than Bangladesh. Three wins from remaining three matches would be a dream come true. But again, for practical purposes, Stimac would be looking for at least two victories – against Bangladesh (7 June) and Afghanistan (15 June). A draw against World Cup hosts Qatar (3 June), which this team has achieved in the past, will be a big boost to their confidence.
Talking about confidence, the Indian team and the head coach need it big time. Stimac’s arrival shot up the expectations level in a giant of the country which is perpetually waiting to be awakened and proceed towards footballing glory. To be fair, the rise in expectations is not merely due to Stimac’ appointment. India had a good run to qualify for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup and then went on to play good football in the continental tournament. The board thought the Croatian will take the team to the next level, and it seemed he had a plan. But here we are, two years since he took charge, India had tasted victory only once in 12 matches, a win over Thailand back in 2019. The pandemic did make it hard for Stimac but now that he signed an extension till September, the head coach knows the task ahead of him. Help India finish third in their group and hope for another extension.
Stimac needs best from youth and experience
In March, the Indian team played two friendlies. They drew 1-1 against Oman but suffered a 6-0 humiliation versus UAE. Stimac gave chances to a number of players who impressed in the latest season of the Indian Super League. What the team missed though was the services of the ever-reliable Sunil Chhetri due to COVID-19. This time, Stimac will have Chettri in his ranks and the head coach will depend on his captain heavily, especially against Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
For years now, the national team has depended on Chhetri and his goals proved to be hugely significant. Stimac’s reign did not provide the answer to the lack of strikers in the national team question and he’ll not be looking to find one in the upcoming games. He will be hoping that Chhetri provides the best answers, like he has been doing for years.
A point against Qatar is not impossible and if the team manages to secure a draw, then it will bode well before the all-important matches against Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu produced a remarkable display against Qatar the last time these two sides met in 2019 but he also conceded six goals very recently. Gurpreet has been facing competition from Amrinder Singh for a while now but it is expected that the Bengaluru FC shot-stopper will feature in all three matches. And it would be the right decision. Like with Chhetri, the Indian team has been relying on Gurpreet’s skills to pull off something special. Though both players are short on match practice and didn’t have a great season with their club, their experience, mastery and leadership qualities are vital for the team.
In recent years, the Indian players have made drastic improvements when it comes to work rate during the matches. The fitness levels have gone up and it can make a difference against superior teams like Qatar. Midfielders Glan Martins and Rowllin Borges are prime examples with their relentlessness in the midfield. While Borges has been in the national side for a while now, Martins was exceptional with FC Goa in the ISL and AFC Champions League. Stimac knows that his midfield bunch, which includes names like Bipin Singh, Lalengmawia (Apuia), Anirudh Thapa, Brandon Fernandes and Pronoy Halder can offer physicality and speed. India will not play an open game against Qatar but creatively it makes sense to unleash Apuia and Brandon against Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
In front of the goal, Manvir Singh is the obvious choice apart from Chhetri. If not for injuries, both should start all three games with Ishan Pandita being the option from the bench. Again, Manvir’s work rate can be a big positive for Stimac and he’s not too bad when it comes to finishing.
Worries for Stimac
It is plain to see that India were devoid of ideal preparations ahead of their qualifiers due to the massive disruption caused by the pandemic and the quarantine conditions. Most of the Indian players in the squad, apart from those who belong to FC Goa, have not played since March so lack of game time could be a big factor.
Also, under Stimac, the team struggled to execute their plan on the field. Often, the players didn’t really look comfortable with their roles and lack of control was very evident. Sure, it’s not easy to develop an identity for a national football team and this being a pandemic time has only made it tough for the head coach. But so far, Stimac somehow didn’t do enough to make his players play as a team. Can the next three matches change the perception? Time will tell.
What they said
"Almost everyone I speak to always makes me remember about the Qatar match. But if you ask me, that isn't my best performance so far. I understand that in the Qatar match, we got a result— and hence, it will always stay a highlight," Gurpreet said.
“Everyone knows what it means for Indian football. Each one of our players understand what it means to have Sunil back in the team and on the pitch with them. They will go out with more courage with him around. He trains in every training session as if he is 25 and plays as if he is 25, " Stimac said when asked about Sunil Chhetri.
“In the first leg, it was very tough and close. We did dominate but we were not able to score despite all the domination. There were certain aspects that didn’t work in our last game against India. We have worked on them and hope to implement it on the pitch,” Felix Sanchez, the head coach of Qatar said.
Goalkeepers: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Amrinder Singh, Dheeraj Singh.
Defenders: Pritam Kotal, Rahul Bheke, Narender Gehlot, Chinglensana Singh, Sandesh Jhingan, Adil Khan, Akash Mishra, Subhashish Bose.
Midfielders: Udanta Singh, Brandon Fernandes, Liston Colaco, Rowllin Borges, Glan Martins, Anirudh Thapa, Pronoy Halder, Suresh Singh, Lalengmawia, Abdul Sahal, Mohammad Yasir, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Bipin Singh, Ashique Kuruniyan.
Forwards: Manvir Singh, Sunil Chhetri, Ishan Pandita.
The India vs Qatar match will start at 10.30 PM IST on 3 June. The match will be broadcast on Star Sports 2/ Star Sports 2 HD, Star Sports 1 Hindi/ Star Sports 1 Hindi HD, Star Sports 3. You can also follow the live updates from the match on our blog at www.firstpost.com.
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