Intercontinental Cup 2019: India coach Igor Stimac remains unaware of best pick as hosts get ready for crucial encounter with DPR Korea

Ahmedabad: The Indian national football team will take on DPR Korea in a crucial encounter in the Intercontinental Cup on Saturday. Both teams will be eyeing nothing short of a victory to keep their chances of qualifying for the finals alive after opening match defeats.

A new-look Blue Tigers lost 4-2 to Tajikistan in their first match of the tournament, while North Korea was on the receiving end of a 5-2 thrashing at the hands of Syria. With both teams leaking a lot of goals, the match could well be a test of who outscores the other, though both coaches would be expected to find solutions to the obvious problem in defence. A defeat in the tie will all but end the host nation’s chances of winning the second edition of the Intercontinental Cup.

No time to experiment

It is clear from Igor Stimac’s team selections in India’s last three outings that the new boss is still looking to find a stable solution to his side. Against Tajikistan, the defence collapsed after a decent first half performance that saw the home side take a two-goal lead. While India can point to the injuries to Sandesh Jhingan and Anas Edathodika (who has now been left out of the squad), there is no hiding the fact that the team are short-staffed in that department.

Young Narender Gahlot had a shockingly bad debut for India, showing how much improvement the young, Jamshedpur FC-bound defender needs to make, while Adil Khan, despite his impressive outing in the King’s Cup, also failed to stamp his authority against a physically superior and organised opposition.

India’s biggest concern will be how effortless Tajikistan made it look to beat the hosts' defence. The ease with which Muhammadjon Rahimov ran past Adil to slot the ball through the legs of Gurpreet Singh Sandhu will be a worry. The first choice keeper had a horror outing too which has led to suggestions that the Bengaluru man might be benched for Amrinder Singh.

Full-backs haven’t been convincing in their positions either. Rahul Bheke has grown in confidence after his debut against Thailand last month but is still prone to a rash decision or two. The left side has been the bigger worry though with Subhasish Bose looking horribly out of form. Stimac tried playing Mandar Rao Desai in the defence against Tajikistan but the FC Goa winger got terribly exposed against the visitors’ speed and physicality. Jerry Lalrinzuala, who was somewhat mysteriously called into the preparations camp after initially missing the cut, will be favourite to start for the Indian side.

 Intercontinental Cup 2019: India coach Igor Stimac remains unaware of best pick as hosts get ready for crucial encounter with DPR Korea

Mandar Rao Dessai endured a torrid outing against Tajikistan, in which much of the Indian defence under-performed. Twitter@IndianFootball

The nature of the match will require Stimac to put out his best side and one shouldn’t be surprised if the coach opts for a cautious approach. With Pronay Halder and Raynier Fernandes not in the squad, former Under 17 captain Amarjit Singh and Delhi Dynamos midfielder Vinit Rai should both be expected to start in the midfield.

If Stimac sticks to the 4-2-3-1 formation, then that would mean only one among Sahal Abdul Samad and Anirudh Thapa will be able to play as the playmaker. Sahal brings a creativity that has been largely absent from the Indian midfield after the peak days of Eugeneson Lyngdoh. But the Kerala-man did look exhausted throughout the previous match which gives Thapa the advantage. To make the team more stable, Stimac might opt to play a four-man midfield which will give a chance to field both Thapa and Sahal in the team at the cost of Lallianzual Chhangte or Udanta Singh.

Who next?

Captain Sunil Chhetri was once again the standout performer for the Blue Tigers against Tajikistan, scoring two goals in the first half and once again highlighting how the country has failed to identify a replacement for the ageing star. Chhetri, who turns 35 in August, will be expected to start the game, though at some point Stimac might give a chance to Jobby Justin who has had a good season with East Bengal.

Captain Sunil Chhetri was once again the standout performer for the Blue Tigers against Tajikistan. Twitter@IndianFootball

Captain Sunil Chhetri was the standout performer for the Blue Tigers against Tajikistan. Twitter@IndianFootball

The Croatian-born coach highlighted his concerns in the press conference after his team’s capitulation against lower-ranked Tajikistan, pointing out how his strikers were not getting regular playing time in the ISL or the I-League owing to teams' decisions to play foreign forwards.

Considering North Korea’s weak defence, India will need to go for the kill, which opens up the possibility of playing both Chhetri and Justin in a 4-4-2 setup. Barring one breakaway, Udanta Singh was hardly an influence in the match, and with Ashique Kuruniyan and Michael Soosairaj absent (two players who could have possibly excelled as a secondary striker), Stimac might be forgiven if he tried to play Udanta in the striker role with Chhetri occupying a slightly withheld position. The two play with each other at Bengaluru FC and Udanta’s pace can be something India look to tap into.

Even though it is early days for the coach and this new-look Indian side, it will be fair to assume that a failure to reach the finals of a home tournament ahead of the World Cup qualifiers that begin in September won’t bode well with the fans or the All India Football Federation. The time, therefore, is now for the former Croatian national team coach to stamp his authority on the team and curb all the doubts that may have risen after the lacklustre tournament opener.

Updated Date: Jul 13, 2019 10:19:38 IST