The tactician also said that the Afghans play at a much higher level than the ISL.

The Indian football team will look to consolidate their position in Group D of the AFC Asian Cup 2023 qualifiers when they face Afghanistan at the Salt Lake Stadium, Kolkata on Saturday. Igor Stimac’s side are currently on top of their group after an impressive win over Cambodia and need to defeat the Lions of Khorasan to take one step closer to Asian Cup qualification.

Ahead of the match against Afghanistan, the India coach shared his thoughts on the upcoming game and more in the pre-match press conference.

Dressing room high on confidence

Igor Stimac is a motivated man heading into the next two games, as he said in the pre-match press conference: “The last win obviously helps in regards to the confidence in the dressing room. We have had our ups and downs in the past and once the competition starts the best possible way is to win the first game. That is what we did and the atmosphere in our dressing room is brilliant and positive.

“The first win was really good, but obviously the win against Cambodia means nothing if we don’t get three points against Afghanistan. We are at point zero and need to look to the job that we need to do. What we need to do is win against Afghanistan,” he added.

Thoughts on Afghanistan

When asked about if he expects Afghanistan to give India a tougher fight than Cambodia, the head coach explained: “I would say we had an easy game against Cambodia because we played well! That is what made it look easy. If we didn’t play well, that match would’ve been very complicated.

“Of course, the match against Afghanistan will be much different. If you saw the Hong Kong-Afghanistan game, you’d see they have lots of quality in movement and quick passing, changing positions, and putting in crosses into the box. They are very good in attacking phases and we need to handle that. We must stay concentrated and disciplined, strike fast and be composed in front of goal.”

Possibility of starting Udanta Singh

Igor Stimac was also cagey in answering whether or not he’ll make major changes to his starting XI against Afghanistan, including the possibility of starting Udanta Singh. He explained: “We still haven’t decided the starting lineup. For obvious reasons, because there is another training in front of us. There is another 30-35 hours prior to the game. We need to see how the players have recovered from the first game.

“What I’m certain is that we need all the fully fit players for this game. Nobody with any kind of doubt or niggle can play here. I don’t want any player bringing any kind of fear or minor injury to the game. Tomorrow morning after the training we’ll decide the team, we’ll have team meetings and go for it. But all options are open,” he added.

If the team followed the other game in Group D?

When asked about whether India can learn anything from how Hong Kong won their game against Afghanistan, the Croatian manager said: “There were different phases in the Hong Kong-Afghanistan game. In the first phase, the Hong Kong players were fresh and were making the middle press – not the high press. Whenever the ball was passed into the midfield, the Hong Kong players were there and took the balls over the Afghani midfielders and scored the first from the middle presses.

“You can’t make high press for more than 15 minutes in such a humid weather conditions. You need to be careful. Making high press and not scoring out of it can put you in trouble for the rest of the game. The game is for 90 minutes. We don’t have a reason to rush at all. They do. So think that way!”

Player positioning crucial against physical Afghanistan

Giving his thoughts on how the Indian players can deal with Afghanistan’s physical style, Stimac expressed: “The players’ positioning and reading of the game will be crucial. We need to keep a good shape, tight line and read the game. We can’t win more duels than Afghanistan, that’s where their physicality comes in as an advantage. But we have to be more clever, simple as that.”

Reason behind chopping and changing frequently

Igor Stimac also revealed his current philosophy for the national team as he keeps shuffling his lineup in every game. He said: “I would like to say that I prefer the best possible options for certain games. I follow my instinct and follow what I see on the training pitch. Nothing else than that. Many wondered why I’m not stabilizing the team and putting the same XI in every game, but that doesn’t exist in football anymore.

“You tell me one team that is playing the same XI in two consecutive games. That doesn’t exist anymore. Because you face a different opponent every time. So what’s the point if you play the same XI every game? We are not one of the best national teams there (outside), not even mentioning Asia or the World.

“So we play the friendly games against stronger teams than us to adapt and work to their quality. We need to accept that. We can’t get out of these teams being arrogant and say we will choose these XI players because they had the best season in the ISL. It doesn’t work like that. You’ll get killed if you think like that.

“We have to adjust our game against most of the teams in Asia and when we play some the weaker ones, we can let them adjust to us. What we must have is committed players, players in best condition and showing good speed and showing good scoring capacity in the training pitch,” he added.

Helping defenders improve

Stimac was, of course, a quality centre-back in his playing days and gave an interesting example of how he helps the Indian defenders improve and said: “We concentrate on our work quite a lot. When we practice on the pitch, we do so with three centre-backs and four in the backline. We play with 5-6 players coming down with the ball, putting out defenders under pressure.

“In every training session and competitive match, we analyze things and we show them to the players about their good positioning, wrong positioning, where they were in trouble, why they were in trouble, how they can change that and how they can read the passing and be in the position to be in regards to the opposition player in possession. There are many aspects that can be improved. But that is the job of the coaches in the club to help them improve,” he quipped.

Difference between Cambodia and Afghanistan

Finally, when asked about what differences he sees between Afghanistan and Cambodia, Igor Stimac said: “It’s a huge difference. I don’t think Cambodia will change anything in the next two games. They need to adjust the game to the stronger opponents. They will never open up and will look to hit on the counter-attacks, they know what to face when they open up and leave space behind.

“But Afghanistan will come out with a winning attitude. That is a huge difference. They are the guys with a lot of experience in international football. The kind of football those players play in is at a much higher level than the ISL level. So let’s take it like that. That kind of experience which makes them a bit more arrogant to approach the game. I accept that.

“We need to be ready to face that, be ready to fight for ball possession and to make them run, not to chase their players to get the ball. That will define the game and make the difference. We intend to get the possession, and get ourselves in a position to control the game. That’s how we can win, I’d say,” he finished off.

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