The Blue Tigers begin their AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers campaign on Wednesday (June 8).

The Indian national team kickoff their AFC Asian Cup qualifiers 2022 campaign on Wednesday, when they face Cambodia at the Salt Lake Stadium, Kolkata. It will mark the Igor Stimac-coached side’s first game on home turf since October 2019. Going into the game as favorites, there are a lot of expectations for the Blue Tigers to win their opening game.

Ahead of their opening match against Cambodia, the Blue Tigers’ head coach Igor Stimac spoke to the media and shared his thoughts.

Playing at home again in front of fans

Stimac is excited to finally be able to play these games and hopes the large support will fuel his team’s fire. He spoke about his side’s preparations and said before the game, “It’s never long enough. We are very happy and excited that the games are coming. Training can be boring at times. We were unlucky to lose one of the friendlies before this, that didn’t do us well.

“Of course, everyone is expecting us to win the games and qualify. We are expecting great support from the stands. We are expecting football fans to come in numbers, to push the boys and be the extra strength and legs for us as well as help us to win the games,” he added.

Fans turning up in huge numbers

With close to 50,000 fans expected to attend the game, Stimac is hoping that the stands will be packed to the rafters. “I hope there will be more than 50,000 in the stands. I appreciated when we played here (Kolkata) the last time that we saw a turnout in huge numbers.

“There is a clear passion and the players could feel it. That pushed us to get a late equalizer against Bangladesh. We were sad that they didn’t allow our fans to attend the games in Qatar. Football is always played for supporters, that’s all that matters. I’m very happy that there will be a big turnout.”

Approach against Cambodia

Speaking about how his team will approach the game, the Croatian added, “I’d say that we have prepared for any case scenario, but we intend to press from the first minute of the game and put Cambodia under high pressure. We need to prove that we are favourites and we need to control as well as be ready to handle the counter-attacks. I’d say we are ready for that.”

Why no I-League players in Indian team

When pressed about why he doesn’t pick I-League players in the national team, Igor Stimac had a blunt answer. He asserted, “Let me make one thing clear, for the national team, I only call the best Indian players. The best Indian players are those playing in the ISL. We need the players who can take us to the next level. The players need to be playing better teams and the competition has to be stronger to bring bigger challenges for the players. That will be coming soon.”

Injury Updates

The tactician also gave some positive news on the injury front. He revealed, “In regards to the circumstances in availability and fitness of the players, we are fully prepared. Rahul (Bheke) is out with a minor injury for 11 days and we will keep him safe for the first game. We’ll prepare him for the Afghanistan game. Apart from Rahul, everyone is available for us.”

Worried about lack of form?

When asked about whether he is worried about India’s shaky form heading into the qualifiers, Igor Stimac explained, “I’m not worried about that for a simple reason, because we played at a time when we lacked preparation and the players were not ready for 90 minutes. Now, we are prepared to have more energy in our legs, more oxygen in our brains to play 90 minutes.

“Now, we have found our level in our fitness condition and how we can play quality football against such opposition. But, I’m not bothered about the result of friendly games. They are aspects for us to judge our learning process. For us, these qualifiers matter the most.”

Easy win against weaker opposition?

The Croatian manager was rather offended when questioned about whether India should be expected to easily win games by a margin of 2-0, 3-0 or more against teams like Cambodia. He stated, “I respect every opposition. I don’t look at rankings. Cambodia didn’t come here to just participate, they came with the same desire to win the game.

“When India was 150th in rankings, we went to win the games and not lose them. I would also have more respect for each opponent. I’d never say we can win against anyone easily. That would be disrespectful. We need to be ready, hungry and fully motivated for these games. If you are preparing your team to get an easy win, that will never happen,” he added.

If team has developed under him?

When asked about how he feels his team has evolved in the time under him, the coach said, “Once we started together, we were very clear in what needed to do in the future. We were clear that we needed to make sure that India participates in every edition of the AFC Asian Cup. And as we participate, it’ll make us participate in the World Cup Qualifiers.

“In every project and part of your life, there are certain steps you need to work on. In our current state, we are the favourites of his group. We are in a good position and I hope we can qualify. Then we will look to prepare in the AFC Asian Cup and do better than the last edition.”

Strikers scoring goals

Finally, Igor Stimac put down his possible fears about his strikers going forward. He stated, “For us in the team and for me as a coach, it doesn’t matter who scores. It’s important we score whenever we play. When we play against better teams like Bahrain, Belarus and Jordan, who are much better and more physical than us, we can’t expect to create many chances. But But, we still created chances and were unlucky not to score.

“Without Sunil (Chhetri), we have little quality to create chances. But, we have young players who lack experience, who we are pushing to get to the level to perform for India at this level. If we keep pushing enough, we’ll get our rewards in the future,” he added.

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