The tactician saw his charges produce a dramatic late winner to maintain their perfect record in Group D.

India coached by Igor Stimac picked up a dramatic 2-1 win over Afghanistan in the second game of their AFC Asian Cup 2023 Qualifiers at the Salt Lake Stadium, Kolkata on Saturday. After being frustrated all game long, Sunil Chhetri opened the scoring with a beautiful free-kick in the 86th minute.

However, Afghanistan quickly got an equalizer through Zubayr Amiri, as it looked like the game would end in a draw. However, super-sub Sahal Abdul Samad scored a winning goal in added time to help his side get a much-needed win.

Reaction to win

Igor Stimac was ecstatic with the win, as he said, “I think everyone in the stadium or those at home would’ve really enjoyed it. There was drama and plenty of quality football from both teams. We had many chances and there were 22 strong men on the pitch, fighting for everything. It was an exciting game. I don’t remember when I last enjoyed a football game like this.

“I think we deserved to win today with the character, resilience and the willingness and good spirit to get the win from the first second. It was obvious that we were ready for a difficult game after the first game put us under the pressure. We had a few ups and downs, because no team can go with the same energy for 90 minutes. Congratulations to both teams and congratulations to Afghanistan for the great fight,” he added.

Managing Expectations

The tactician also called for patience in terms of expectations from fans. He stated, “In the last few years, I’m getting tired to explain to everyone that good football doesn’t come overnight. It is a process that will take time. We have youngsters that can make us proud, but we must be patient.”

“Football doesn’t work like that. We need to understand that process of work in football is a lengthy process. Knowledge of football in India is so low. You can’t criticize points you don’t understand. I just ask for patience from the fans, nothing else,” Igor Stimac added.

Character of team

Stimac also gave an emotional speech on the character of the team to get the win. He explained, “We are called Blue Tigers. Today, we played like Blue Tigers. We need to keep being that tiger on the pitch. That’s the way we are heading to. Going out, enjoying the football and fighting for your country with pride and honour. We will lose games yes, but I must mention one player who I’m proud of today is Manvir.

“I feel responsible to make his name in Indian football. When I took him out in the last game in the first half, I felt embarrassed that the isn’t playing for the country in the way he should. I need players to fight for the country, sprint for us, challenge the opponents and make the centre-backs feel your tackles. That is why he is out there. That’s why I’m proud of it. I’m proud of the players who can react after being criticized.”

Sahal’s dramatic winner

When asked about his thoughts on Sahal’s dramatic late winner, Stimac asserted, “A key moment is to keep momentum. I told Sahal before the SAFF Cup final that sometimes one minute on the pitch can work better for you than 1,000. It depends on how you organize your time. I asked him to score under the last minutes as he did today.

“I need Sahal to rationalize his moves. He has so much quality, he can run he can sprint, but 50% of those are not effective. I won’t teach one of my players to be effective with your runs. It’s a long process to help those things. Patience is the only way forward, and we will go forward. We’ll bring some surprise things in the Asian Cup,” he added.

Praise for players

Speaking about his thoughts on Ashique Kuruniyan and the others’ performance, the Croatian noted, “Not only two of them, but everyone was fantastic today. I must praise Akash (Mishra), Roshan (Singh), and (Sandesh) Jhingan Anwar (Ali) were all great. Suresh (Singh) and Jeakson (Singh) were solid. Suresh enjoyed playing today with so much attention through the 90 minutes. We’ve grown some wonderful young players here and that makes us to win these games easier than before!”

Selecting the team

The tactician also reserved praise for Naorem Roshan Singh and Manvir Singh, as he said, “Roshan was doubtful and (Rahul) Bheke was supposed to start the game. But, then my assistant and physio told me there was a huge risk to play Bheke. I would never put any of our players under risk. I talked to him and we were left with two possible choices. We needed one big and one small player on the sides.”

“We knew their attacking set-pieces were the only way they could score against us. They scored a wonderful goal using the set-piece. Roshan or (Pritam) Kotal were the options to play, but we decided to play Roshan and Manvir. I felt it would’ve been an injustice not to play Roshan after that beautiful first game. We also gave Manvir the chance to pay back for work in the first game.”

Winning the group

Addressing concerns of possible added pressure on his team to win the group and qualify for the Asian Cup, the coach Igor Stimac stated, “We need to try to find a way to enjoy the game. If we need to win the group, we must win the game.

“Let’s just enjoy it. I must thank the fans who came to the stadium and I feel like we’ve paid up with a great performance. I must invite more people to come and enjoy these youngsters who will bring a brighter future.”

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