Stimac: 'I see India reaching the final stage of the AFC Asian Cup'

India plays the third round of the Asian Cup qualifiers in Kolkata, which hosts the round robin group D league comprising Afghanistan, Hong Kong, Cambodia and India.

FILE PHOTO: Indian men's national football team head coach Igor Stimac in action.   -  REUTERS

India will "surely" secure a qualification to the 2023 AFC Asian Cup if the team plays true to its ability, feels the National head coach Igor Stimac. India plays the third and final round of the Asian Cup qualifiers here at the Salt Lake Stadium, which hosts the round robin group D league comprising Afghanistan, Hong Kong, Cambodia and host India, from June 8.

READ: Chhetri returns as Stimac names probables ahead of Asian Cup final round qualifiers

“We are definitely considered the favourite and we are quite confident about it. We would like to go to the pitch and justify our reputation and I see India reaching the final stages, there is no doubt about it,” Stimac said at the start of the National camp for the Asian Cup qualifiers, on Tuesday.

“I hope that we are going to get some great support like before in the stands here (at Salt Lake Stadium). We have some debts to repay to our supporters here in Kolkata and all the people who came for our match against Bangladesh (in October 2019) when we could not produce our best (and managed a 1-1 draw with a last gasp equalizer). Hopefully we will be able to celebrate much better at the end of the qualifiers this time,” Stimac sounded optimistic.

Analysing the opponents, the former Croatian World Cupper said that Afghanistan appears to be the strongest challenge that India needs to surmount in the third round fixtures. “From our previous experiences we know that Afghanistan is a team of strong, tough guys full of confidence and international experience. They play a different kind of football,” Stimac said, remembering the 1-1 draws his team managed in the previous two meetings with the same opponent during the second round.

“We are still waiting for the detained inputs on Honk Kong to see how much they have changed with the inclusion of three Brazil-born players of Hong Kong descent. The same is with Cambodia,” he added.

The Indian probables will be playing friendlies against the ISL side ATK Mohun Bagan and a selection of the I-League players before setting off for Doha to play two friendlies against Zambia and Jordan on May 25 and 28 respectively.

“We will select a squad of 26 players while releasing and adding some of the names from the ongoing camp. The friendlies in Doha are against sides which are ranked better than India. That will give us a chance to analyse how we cope against superior teams and find out the areas of improvement,” Stimac said. 

The National coach said the Indian captain Sunil Chhetri is in fine shape but the team will be missing injured forward Rahim Ali, who is the casualty of an unplanned domestic season. “Sunil is still in great shape. He has recovered from some minor niggles well and will be the main force upfront of the national team,” Stimac said.

“I am very sad that Rahim Ali is not with us in the squad as he was creating a great partnership with Sunil. He was definitely making Sunil’s life easier by drawing a lot of the opposition defence with him while leaving Sunil free on the other side. He was showing a lot of improvement in his game but young players like him suffer because of a short domestic season which forces them to play overlooking minor injuries. These injuries later take a chronic shape as we see it happening with Rahim. He played the last season with injuries and that will now keep him away for six-seven weeks,” coach added.

Stimac said that it is essential to restart the grassroots leagues development programmes if Indian football wishes to reach the level of the top Asian teams.

“The football ecosystem could always have been better but we have to consider that the pandemic put a stop on the processes that we had agreed upon two and a half years ago (since taking over the mantle of the national coach). Two years ago it was decided to start ISL mid-September but all such plans were destroyed by the pandemic. I am more worried because many of the developmental programmes like the baby leagues and the grassroots leagues were stopped and that is hampering the future of Indian football,” Stimac said.

“We are six to seven years behind the top Asian teams and the only way to bridge the gap is to invest heavily on development and push the youngsters forward. That is the reason why I am always trying to push young players in the Indian team. And I can say that we are very close to exposing these youngsters at the big stage. Very soon you see one new Indian football team that will make the supporters of the game very happy.

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