Sometimes you need to take a step back to move forward. India’s coach Igor Stimac showed that in its match against Qatar.
Before the match, he was clear about the opponent. “We know Qatar is out of our league,” he had quipped.
And on Tuesday, his starting eleven took many by surprise. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, India’s No. 1 goalkeeper and a hero in India’s clashes against Qatar, was benched for Amrinder Singh.
India made four changes from the side that started against Kuwait, in addition to Manvir Singh, who was ruled out with a muscle injury. Stimac was testing the waters against one of the strongest teams Asia, the defending Asian Cup champion.
“The result was not our priority today. My priority as a coach today was to get answers to some questions that had been haunting me for a certain time. We’re not having any games prior to the game against Australia.
I have all my answers and that’s a huge win out of this game,” he told reporters.
Let’s take a step back here. Cut to the practice on matchday minus one. Before the usual activation drills, the coach took a player aside for a small chat. And then the rondo began, followed by small-sided games.
The player – Udanta Singh, the former Bengaluru FC winger – had lost his place to Mahesh Singh Naorem along the right.
Though he tried to help the overlapping runs of Nikhil Poojary, Udanta failed to make an impact against Qatar. After the match, the coach made it clear that Udanta might not make it to the Asian Cup squad.
“We had Sahal (Abdul Samad) and Mahesh on the bench today because they’ve been going through some mental fatigue. These two guys played whole games since May. We cannot expect them to just keep rising up,” Stimac said.
“The plan today was very simple – give a chance to Udanta. We’ve been carrying Udanta with us for a long time, expecting a lot, not getting enough. What I saw today, I’m sorry to say that, but we don’t have time to wait more for some players. Some players got enough chances.”
He added that Udanta would need to go back to his club (FC Goa) and earn his place in the national team again.
“I’m not harsh on him, don’t get me wrong. I love the boy, and everyone knows who is close to me that my biggest hopes about big competitions were about Ashique Kuruniyan and Udanta because they have enormous speed, energy and endurance,” he said.
“But if you don’t push yourself, work hard enough or not take care of yourself every day in a way that it’s your last day, no good things will happen. We are not a team that can keep carrying people who are not improving on a daily basis or at least on a yearly basis.”
Plaudits for Amrinder, Bheke and Subhasish
Udanta was not the only one trying to earn the coach’s trust. Amrinder, replacing Gurpreet, conceded three goals but was instrumental in preventing a few.
And he passed the ‘Stimac test’.
“Credit to him for the game today, to his discipline, to his patience, to his commitment to the national team shirt,” Stimac said.
“We all know that Gurpreet had two fantastic games against Qatar and he’s our first-choice goalkeeper. We don’t have any doubt about it.
“But you know why he is our first-choice goalkeeper. Because Amrinder is pushing him to this. He’s got Amrinder here with discipline, committed with hunger, passion, pain with patience, waiting his chance and working hard. And whenever he gets the chance, he is different.”
Stimac lauded forwards Ishan Pandita and Rahul KP for their brief performance off the bench and specifically said that Lalengmawia Ralte and Suresh Singh look set for the Asian Cup.
“I’m also very happy for Subhashish Bose and Rahul Bheke. First Bheke, because he had two tremendous games against Kuwait and today again. He proved to everyone guys that he was worth being in the national teams,” Stimac said.
Bheke and Subhasish have played key roles with their Indian Super League (ISL) sides, Mumbai City FC and Mohun Bagan Super Giant respectively, where both are captains.
But for the national team, Stimac has preferred the full-back pair of Akash Mishra and Poojary in most of the games this year while Anwar Ali has been preferred over Bheke at the centre-back position.
“It’s obvious to all of us who are following all the games that Akash’s work has dropped significantly, and it’s normal for me as a coach, but his form didn’t drop in a way that can hurt the team. What he’s doing is enough but he can do much more,” the coach said.
“So, this was a wonderful situation for Subhashish to prove himself. He’s been working so hard the last year and I felt sorry, to be honest, watching him but not being able to move Akash from the position. Today was a great opportunity to give him a chance to confirm his position for the Asian Cup, and he did it.”
All the national team players would now return to their respective ISL sides and strong performances there can earn them a spot in the Asian Cup squad.
But Stimac said that only ISL performances would not be enough, and that hunger and determination would be the dealbreakers.
“It’s very significant what they’re going to do now in ISL. But I’m expecting much more than what I have been seeing. That will define who will come with us in the list of 23. I will watch each minute again of the game and only that will make the difference,” he said.
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