The Blue Tigers will play their last round-robin game against hosts Maldives on Wednesday.

India will lock horns with defending champions Maldives on October 13 at the SAFF Championship. This is the last round-robin game and will therefore, be the decider for the finals. So far, however, Igor Stimac and Co. have had two draws and one win in their journey; ranking them third on the table. On the other hand, the Maldives have shot up to second on the table, with two consecutive wins after their initial loss.

Currently, the final spots are open for everyone except Sri Lanka; thus making the stakes extremely high for the remaining four. While a draw will do the trick for the Maldives, India will be desperately looking for a win to secure their place. It’s quite a hard call to make, considering the unpredictability of the tournament so far. Nonetheless, tomorrow will be a decisive day at the SAFF Championship.

Ahead of the dramatic conclusion, Indian head coach Stimac was joined by midfielder Jeakson Singh, who both spoke at the pre-match press conference:

Thoughts on campaign so far

First up, Igor Stimac opened up about this crucial fixture and what it would mean for the national side. “Today is one day prior to the final group game. Obviously, the last seven days have been really busy for the Indian team; three games in seven days. The most important thing was to refresh our players’ legs and minds to prepare them for our final group game. This is important for us as well as the Maldives because only one of us can reach the finals,” he began.

“The situation will be much easier for the Maldives with regards to the table (their current standing). Obviously, with a draw, they’ll be good and satisfied. So, what we need to do is clear. From the very beginning, we’ll need to win and that’s how we will approach the game.

“Generally, I’m quite happy with the performances in the last three games. Looking at the way we played; possession, shots and everything else, the team did the best they could; after such a short preparation. But, most importantly, we only conceded two shots (on target) in these three games. One of these shots was a goal. So our goalkeeper was not busy at all in these three games. We dominated all three, which we insist from our players,” he added.

“But, obviously, there’s the same old problem following us; scoring. It’s been there for many years. It will probably stay with us for a while until we get out and produce few more good strikers like Sunil Chhetri. We can’t be a team that depends only on one player to score goals. We need to be more confident in front of goal and have more players without (who don’t) fear the box. That is, with more confidence and determination and then things will be much easier,” Stimac explained.

On 2018 SAFF Championship

The 54-year-old was then asked about the SAFF Championship 2018 and the experience that came along with it, especially for the few who were part of the then finalists’ squad.

To this, he initially responded, “It’s been a long time since that happened; 2018 — three years back. Most of these players (2018) finalists are now experienced and not young anymore. Tomorrow, we’ll witness some great veterans; Ashfaq (Ali Asfhaq) from one side and Sunil (Chhetri) from another side. It’s a joy watching them play. If they play in the same team, it would be a great combination for the coach to have;” thereby highlighting the greatness of both players.

Getting to the point later, Igor Stimac added, “I think the Maldivian team has improved a lot. They are more compact than they were before. They insist more on passing and possession football along with creating chances. They’ve not been wasting time since the last few years. They’ve improved as a team.”

Takeaways from win against Nepal

Igor Stimac and his men took three crucial points from Nepal on Sunday. Through this, they’ve kept themselves alive in the tournament. Based on the same, the tactician was asked about the motivation his side got from the victory.

He answered, “The best motivation you always get is from winning games. It was not easy to have two draws in the opening (first half) of the tournament. However, it was a relief after beating Nepal; not for me but the players, for their confidence and future work. They deserved to win all three games, but it didn’t happen. That’s football, without scoring goals you cannot win games. You can do good and play well, but without scoring, there’s no winning. This needs to change in Indian football and I hope it will change soon.”

Mood in camp

Next up, 20-year-old midfielder Jeakson Singh was asked about the mood in the Indian camp, especially on how it had changed after the initial two draws.

He replied, “The mood in the camp is now much better. We didn’t have good results in the first two matches, but we (then) got three important points. We did very good the last match and hopefully, we take these positive thoughts to the final group stage match as well,” emphasizing the impact of the win against Nepal.

On squad rotation

Coming back to Igor Stimac, the tactician was quizzed on India’s squad rotation as compared to the Maldivian side; that’s been using the same players throughout. He responded, “As I told you at the beginning of the tournament, our aim here is not only to participate and try to win. One of the other aims it to see all the players that we brought here because it’s the last chance before the (AFC Asian Cup) qualifiers. For me, as a coach who started working just a bit more than two years ago, I had to create a new team; “generally” (basically) a new one. Here you cannot find more than 4-5 players who were in the previous team, before my arrival.

“Things are very different and I need to make sure each and every player invited to the national team has enough strength, determination and quality to adapt to what we’re looking for, as well as help the team on the pitch. We are using every opportunity to give everyone who’s here a chance to appear and prove themselves, to see how far we can go with them in the future. Generally, I think we’re growing up as a team, not rapidly as we would like.”

Regarding number of matches

Elaborating further about Indian football, the tactician stated, “Obviously, corona (the pandemic) stopped many things, including our work in certain ways. We couldn’t have any serious camps in the last two years; only one in the Emirates and the final stages of the qualifiers (FIFA World Cup Qualifiers). So, for one team to have the possibility of being together for just (even) one month in two years, it’s nothing. You cannot expect any kind of progress in such a way. But, there’s no one to blame. The circumstances were pretty similar to everyone (else) in Asia. So, hopefully, we’re coming to a position now where we can spend more time together.

“The ISL is also starting very soon and it will be over by the end of February or the beginning of March. This will give us enough time (in April and May) to play; to prepare this team for the future and expect very good things (results) out of it.”

On facing Maldivian forwards

Lastly, the Croatian was asked about his side facing the likes of Ali Ashfaq, Hamza Mohamed and so forth. In other words, what he thought about facing such in-form players. He expressed, “Of course, you have players other than Ashfaq as well. It’s obvious that the Maldivian team played really well upfront. They were creating a lot of chances and their movements were great. There’s a reasonable understanding between Ashfaq and the other players.

“They know how to move and he receives the ball. They know where to run and he knows where they are running (even) without looking. So, obviously, the understanding between Maldivian players on the pitch is quite good. How they are going to play tomorrow also depends on us; how well we are going to let them play. If our team and (especially) our defenders do what I expect them to do, the Maldivian team shouldn’t play much,” he concluded.

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