The Blue Tigers’ rearguard left them exposed in the first half against Curacao.

Igor Stimac’s managerial reign with India didn’t start with glitter and stars. The Croatian suffered a harsh reality check very early into his stint, with his team falling to a 3-1 loss to Curacao in their King’s Cup opener in Thailand. In doing so, Stimac became the second head coach after Bob Houghton to lose his first match in-charge of the Indian national team.

However, perhaps like the English tactician ushered in a new chapter for Indian football’s development, Stimac has also shown the qualities to do the same. In Sunil Chhetri’s record-breaking appearance, in which he eclipsed Bhaichung Bhutia’s mark, the Blue Tigers failed to roar alongside their captain. It didn’t even take long for Stimac to realize the gigantic task at hand. As a matter of fact, only about 35 minutes did the trick.

Watch: Curacao 3-1 India highlights

The Croatian took a risk in starting with an ambitious 4-2-3-1 formation, which quickly transformed into a 4-5-1, as Curacao turned up the pressure early on. However, even in this defensive style, the Blue Tigers weren’t compact as one expected them to be. It didn’t even feel like the defence was packed after a point of time.

The ghost of the past years came back to haunt them, causing serious malfunctions in the backline. Curacao outwitted and overpowered the defenders to take a relatively quick two-goal lead, which was cut down to one when the record-breaker, Sunil Chhetri scored from a penalty. Immediately afterwards, Leonardo Bacuna ran behind the multiple midfielders and Rahul Bheke to slot home the decisive third.

The debutant, Bheke barely lived up to his “Bhekenbauer” reputation. Bullied by the opposition striker, overpowered and caught out of position numerous time, his lack of chemistry with Sandesh Jhingan was palpable. However, not only was he at fault. Some of the senior members of the Blue Tigers also failed to protect the inexperienced ones, in fact inviting trouble as they did during Stephen Constantine’s reign as well.

Pritam Kotal never looked stable on the right. Even after having made more than 30 appearances in national colours, he seemed like an amateur against an electric Gevaro Nepomuceno. Kotal’s sloppiness in defence, inability to make proper passes and tendency to lose possession caused severe problems for the Blue Tigers. His ATK counterpart Pronay Halder was just as much of a wreck, ironically playing in a position to save his defence from trouble.

The defensive strongman was deployed as the deepest midfielder, but his erratic nature was capitalized on by Curacao. He was often goaded into losing his positional sense, made unnecessary tackles and ended up being all over the place in the middle of the park. By creating multiple gaping holes, the ATK man might’ve put the nails in his coffin under Stimac, who ended up substituting him after a gruesome first half.

Among the multiple disappointments, one thing was constant. The Indian players are fearful of losing the ball whenever they get possession. Not only in this game, but a similar plague resulted in the AFC Asian Cup meltdown as well. Be it the whole backline or someone like Udanta Singh, the Blue Tigers end up crumbling under pressure too easily. Curacao understood this problem early, pressing high up to win back possession easily and capitalized on it by finding players out of position.


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To get rid of this fear factor, Stimac must increase the mental fortitude and self-belief among the players. In order to play more positive football, India need to move the ball more smoothly, keep possession and defend strongly. If the Croatian truly wants to eradicate the “small team” approach from the side, he has a gigantic and very slow task at hand. However, the silver lining for him were the bright performances from some of the debutants.

Sahal Abdul Samad was one of the best performers for India against Curacao

In his two stints, Stephen Constantine gave debuts to 53 players for India. Stimac has already given six players their first minutes in national colours in just over ninety minutes. The progressive Croatian’s eclipsing the pragmatic Englishman in that regard and the confidence showcased by his debutants is the brightest positive he must take. Sahal Abdul Samad, albeit for a few inexperienced errors, was a livewire in attack, winning the penalty and getting into promising positions many times.

Moreover, even Brandon Fernandes played clever defence-splitting passes not many tend to do in national colours. Raynier Fernandes was the industrial engine Kotal couldn’t be, while Amarjit Singh Kiyam showcased incredible resolve despite his young age. These youngsters ended up playing a more fluid, attractive style than their “experienced” predecessors.

There are multiple demons holding back the Indian national team right now. However, Stimac must take his time in ending their nightmares with positivity. If that requires multiple changes in personnel and constant tinkering, then so be it. To eradicate “small-team football,” he must first remove the small-team mentality which often sees India sink to little pressure. The process might be a slow, tiring one, but Stimac’s decisive moves give hope that change is quite imminent in the national team.