The Croatian explained the importance of his team’s opening game at the SAFF Championship.

The Indian men’s football team will kick-start their SAFF Championship 2021 campaign on Monday, when they take on neighbours Bangladesh. Led by interim head coach Oscar Bruzon, the Bangla Tigers are in good form, having beaten Sri Lanka in their opening fixture on Friday. Meanwhile, speaking ahead of the clash, India tactician Igor Stimac commented that they are grateful to be playing in the competition.

“We are grateful to be here, especially considering these circumstances. Everyone knows how football in the world, especially in Asia, has been affected by COVID-19 and related issues. Hence, we are happy to get a chance of playing here – because this is probably our last chance to be together as a team before the third round of the AFC Asian Cup 2023 Qualifiers,” he began.

The Croatian also answered questions from the media during the pre-match press conference on Sunday. Here are the important bits from the interaction:

On what changed in Indian football team between 2019-2021

Igor Stimac and his boys have faced Bangladesh twice so far – in 2019 and 2021, both during the FIFA World Cup 2022 Qualifiers. While the Blue Tigers could only muster a draw in their first game, they won 2-0 in the second outing, that took place in June this year.

“It’s difficult to say what changed between 2019 and 2021,” Stimac said when asked about it. “We also watched the Bangladesh game (against Sri Lanka at the SAFF C’Ship on Friday), but couldn’t derive much as they only won because of a penalty.

“However – what’s different right now, is that prior to the FIFA World Cup 2022 Qualifiers in June, we got 15 days to organize ourselves a little bit before the first match. This time, though, we got only 4-5 days, which is just not enough for any national team coach to prepare his team. However, I’m quite confident that our players know well as to what we need to do here, and as to why we’re here – which is to win the tournament and justify our ‘favourites’ tag,” he further added.

“But, we also respect every team and are under-estimating none of them. Still, I expect my players and the team to prove that they’re better than the others.”

On late start at SAFF Championship 2021

Every other team in the competition (Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka) have played a game each. India are the only team who are yet to get their campaign underway. Igor Stimac hinted that this could be a challenge, although he did not admit it openly.

“It depends on how you look at it. It can’t be much more difficult than other teams, but we have to be ready to play five games in the next 12 days, while other teams have one match less each. They will get longer intervals between the games too. Therefore, we need to select the players well and we’re screening and monitoring the team well for that purpose,” he said, before adding, “But, I’m still confident that India can do well in the competition.”

About players in team & absentees

India named a 23-men squad that was without Sandesh Jhingan, Ashique Kuruniyan and Rowllin Borges. Stimac revealed that Jhingan and Kuruniyan were left out due to injury concerns, while Borges last played a competitive game in March, thereby forcing his own omission.

The 54-year-old also spoke on Sunil Chhetri and his role in the team. “It’s a well-known story, as to how important he is in the team. There’s no need really to talk much about it. However, I also won’t underestimate the other players in the squad. And we, as a team are confident to go out and play without Chhetri if the need arises – like we did against Qatar in June,” he said.

When asked about the potential reliance on ATK Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC players on Monday, the head coach agreed, saying, “They know about the grounds, the speed of the ball, the nature of the pitches and so on. We’ll rely more on them, if needed.

“They’re also in good condition as far as fitness is concerned, as ATKMB and BFC started training well before the other Indian football clubs. I’m hoping that their players in the current India squad are feeling at home here.”

On pressure as ‘favourites’

Igor Stimac and Co, placed 107th in the latest FIFA World Rankings, are the highest-rated side in the SAFF Championship 2021. The other four teams are far below: Maldives (158) are followed by Nepal (168), Bangladesh (189) and Sri Lanka (205). Hence, the ‘favourites’ tag automatically falls on the Blue Tigers, who have also won the competition a record seven times till date.

Despite it being so, the Croatian feels that there won’t be any added pressure on them. “I don’t look at this tournament that way. Of course, we’re here to win it and it will boost the confidence of all the players. But, we aren’t underestimating anyone nor are we thinking of ourselves as favourites. Everyone has a chance to win the SAFF Championship and we respect everyone,” he said.

Thoughts on Bangladesh & coach Oscar Bruzon

“I expect the team to do a similar job to what we did in Qatar (in the FIFA World Cup 2022 Qualifiers),” said Stimac.

He further added. “It’s going to be a different game. They (Bangladesh) are trying a new thing, with a coach who uses a different style of play. However, he’s been working in the country for a while now and would know a lot about the players. They’ll try to make things difficult for us. Meanwhile, I’d like to concentrate on our game only. Even one point would be good for them. They are at a better position as of now, but we’ll stick to our game-plan, try to press hard, create chances and control the game.

“The support (of fans) is also welcome. I’ve seen some Indians here already. I hope there will be many in the stands tomorrow and then the boys will also be inspired to do their best on the pitch. The first game is the most difficult one, as it can make or mar the players’ confidence. if the first game doesn’t go as per plan, you would need to reorganize everything – which can be undermining,” the Croatian said, when asked about the importance of the opening clash. He also left a warning to Oscar Bruzon.

“He thinks the best of his team and has been trying to boost confidence of his players (based on his pre-match comments). His (former) team did well in the AFC Cup – but this is a different space.

“There are no foreign players to help out in the SAFF Championship. If he thinks that his side are the favourites to win, he might change his mind soon,” Igor Stimac concluded.

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