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AFC Asian Cup

Igor Stimac on India's Asian Cup squad: No option to experiment with new players

Published at :December 31, 2023 at 5:55 PM
Modified at :December 31, 2023 at 6:57 PM
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Atawaris Warsi


The Croatian tactician reserved praise for Apuia, Lalchungnunga and Udanta Singh.

With the 18th edition of the AFC Asian Cup about to kickoff in Qatar on January 12th, 2024, football aficionados are eagerly gearing up for the thrilling clashes among the 24 participating nations. Among the contenders, the spotlight is undeniably on the Blue Tigers of India, as they embark on their fifth appearance in this esteemed continental tournament. 

The anticipation has reached a fever pitch, with fans eagerly awaiting the strategic moves and decisions of head coach Igor Stimac. In a recent press conference, coach Stimac delved into a myriad of topics, providing insights into the team’s preparedness, tactics and aspirations. 

Let’s take a look on the various topics the coach enlightened us upon:

The Grand Doha Welcome

Upon touching down on Doha’s soil on December 30th, 2023, for their AFC Asian Cup 2023 preparations, the Indian football team experienced a grand welcome by the Indian community, orchestrated by the KBFC Qatar Manjappada. Coach Stimac highlighted the significance of this reception, emphasizing on the enthusiastic support that awaited the team in Qatar. 

“The welcome organised by our fanbase here in Doha was amazing. They came in huge numbers there at the airport. There was a big welcome here in our hotel and we already started working. So, let’s leave welcoming notes aside because we have short time to prepare. We are very focused on the work that needs to be done here.”

The work ahead

Coach Stimac articulated his strategy for pre-tournament preparations, emphasizing on a meticulous approach to ensure the team’s readiness. He underscored the importance of focused training sessions, tactical drills and fostering team cohesion to optimise performance as they gear up for the upcoming AFC Asian Cup.

He said, “We will have nine football training sessions on the pitch. So, the training schedule is organised with the two working days, four sessions, followed by the rest third day. So, that will be our schedule until the first game. We are going to have one game between us on the 7th, just six days prior to the first game, to see where we stand at the moment.”

Weather in Doha

The Indian football team is the first to reach Doha ahead of the tournament. The coach however highlighted the weather of Qatar and also emphasized on how that will have an impact on the squad and the training drills. “We are the first to reach here, but the rest of the teams have been in Dubai for already three weeks.”

“We decided to come straight over here not to waste time on travelling later on. So, we are trying to settle down, with the climate conditions here, to adjust to the football pitches and to settle down in a proper way.”

Parameters for picking players

In shedding light on the recently revealed 26-man squad list, coach Igor Stimac detailed the criteria guiding player selection. He stated, “Our methods are obvious and clear. We constructed our team, the process started four and a half years ago, so the core base of the team was always well-known.”

He added, “Prior to the big tournaments, as I said plenty of times earlier also, I don’t have options of experimenting with the new players or trying to bring new faces in. So, the players who are here, they have been with us many times here. They have a good experience, never mind the 17 out of this 26 players are first time in such a big tournament, but it will be great experience for them.”

Optimistic?

When asked whether he is optimistic and whether the team is ready for the challenges, Stimac replied, “The team changed dramatically for us, with the injuries in the last couple of months. Everything started after losing Ashique Kuruniyan, after him it was Anwar Ali, then Jeakson followed.

“Then lately, the players who were mostly the backup option in the middle of the park like Glan (Martins), Rohit (Kumar), they suffered certain injuries. We are not as good as we could be at the moment, but we don’t have time to think about those who are not with us, we have to focus on those who are here with us.”

Surprised by any particular player?

In reflecting on the first half of the ISL 2023-24, coach Igor Stimac was queried about any Indian players who particularly stood out and how such performances influenced the formation of the 26-man squad. Stimac acknowledged, “I was very happy to see Sahal (Abdul Samad) settling down with Mohun Bagan in a proper way, assisting for many goals, personally really important for him. (Sandesh) Jhingan bringing stability to the Goa side was really important to us. These are some of the key players we have in our team.”

He also mentioned how some players were affected by changing their clubs. “Some other players were affected, changing the clubs, like (Anirudh) Thapa, who’s been playing out of the position mostly as a No. 6 there (in Mohun Bagan Super Giant). We need to bring back the self-confidence to those players who are at the moment with low self esteem here.”

Patterns in mind

The Croatian tactician also spoke about a few tactics he will be applying against the opponents. “Coming in mind who are we facing, first to defend our goals, then after that to find the gaps in between the lines of these teams. We are expecting to not have much of a ball possession here, much of an opportunity to come in front of their goal, but we need to be very clear.”

Reaching the knockouts

India will be facing teams like Australia, Uzbekistan and Syria in the group stage. When asked whether the team is optimistic to reach the knockout stages, the coach said, “Obviously we are the outsider in our group, so it’s quite clear to everyone.”

“Because Uzbekistan is one of the dark-horses in the tournament, with fantastic recent results. Whoever they play they make it difficult for them with their physicality, their speed, their technique, they have a fantastic team with a great manager. Australia, what to say, they have players playing in the highest level of club football. They will come 6-7 days prior, but they have amazing players. They are one of the favourites here.”

Loss of Anwar Ali, Jeakson and Ashique 

The coach also highlighted the lack of physicality the team is going to face after losing three important players. “We lost a huge part of our physical strength, passing quality and passing stability with three key players absent at the moment. We were looking for options who can replace that physicality, so that is why we got (Deepak) Tangri with us here. So, if anything happens to Suresh (Wangjam) and Apuia, he needs to cover that position.”

“The teams that we are going to face are really dangerous at the offensive set-pieces. We need to have good height and we need to have good combination in defensive set-pieces.”

The Goalkeepers

In addressing the inclusion of Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Vishal Kaith, and Amrinder Singh as the team’s goalkeepers, coach Igor Stimac shed light on their training regimen. He emphasized, “They need to work on their self-confidence, they need to be brave coming up to pick up the crosses, especially against Australia, which is a well-known team with great crosses and goals coming from it.”

Trevor Sinclair’s involvement

India football team head coach Igor Stimac has roped in ex-teammate Trevor Sinclair as an assistant ahead of the AFC Asian Cup 2023, especially for set-piece execution. Stimac highlighted his involvement and said, “First thing we are going to work on is stop conceding goals from set-pieces, that’s more important at the moment.

“Then after that, we work on combinations and how to score goals from set-pieces. Trevor as a person who has got great experience. As a player, he’s been working in development programmes, and he knows what needs to be done. The first 4-5 days we are going to use for this work.”

Apuia, Lalchungnunga and Udanta Singh

These are the three young boys who are ready to set foot in such a huge tournament. Stimac share his thoughts on the trio and said, “Apuia is having a great season. It was great seeing him reorganize his attitude inside the national team and I am very happy about his attitude at the moment. But, he needs to be aware that there will be much less time on the ball here.”

“East Bengal look very organized, he (Lalchungnunga) is part of the team, also he is a young player, he became a regular part of the team, with the national team. He had great performances during the Asian Games, that’s why he is here with us because we trust in him.”

“Udanta is playing for FC Goa, which is top three of the league, he is regular in the team and he is involved in most of the goals there. He is the quickest player in India, and that speed we need to hurt the opponents like Australia, Uzbekistan or Syria,” the coach added.

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