The Indian team must aim to qualify and succeed in the  AFC Asian Cup  on a regular basis in order to achieve bigger goals, says head coach  Igor Stimac.

Stimac’s next assignment with the Blue Tigers is the third and final round qualifiers of the AFC Asian Cup China 2023, scheduled for June 8, 11, and 14 in Kolkata. India was part of the 2019 edition of the Asian Cup in the UAE but bowed out in the knockout stage despite a  4-1 win over Thailand in the tournament opener .

“One needs to look at the broader dream - and that is to qualify for the FIFA World Cup. But it can only be achieved step by step. Qualifying and playing regularly at the AFC Asian Cup finals and doing well there is must for us if we are to achieve our ultimate dream of qualifying for the World Cup,” Stimac said.

India has been drawn with Hong Kong, Afghanistan and Cambodia in Group D of its final-round qualifiers.

Stimac outlined how he will approach the matches given the fact that Hong Kong and Afghanistan have many players who are overseas citizens and play in foreign leagues - including Clayton, Diego Eli Moreira, Roberto Junior and Matt Orr.

“Firstly, we need to analyse all our opponents, especially Hong Kong and their foreign legion. Having played Afghanistan twice in recent years, we are pretty much aware of their strengths, and we will monitor them for the next two months as part of our regular process. At the same time, we need to analyse the recent past of Hong Kong, and find their weaknesses which we need to exploit on the field.

“I need to say without any disrespect to anyone that I like our group, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. No games are easy, and we need to do the job to win it, and travel to China next year.”

Club duty

Stimac won’t be getting all the players in the national camp prior to the final round of the qualifiers as many of them will be busy with their club commitments until April at least.

He expressed his concerns about that scenario. “Having ATKMB and Mumbai City FC involved in Asian Cups means that we won’t get all our players at the same time in the preparatory camp for a long period. Even as the ISL ends in March, the Mumbai City FC players will be on their club commitments till the end of April.

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“And if ATKMB qualify for the second round of the AFC Cup, we won’t get them till the last week of May. The two clubs contribute to around 10-12 players for the national team, and it will make our preparations more difficult.”

He added, “But there is nothing we can do about it. We have faced similar situations even previously. Our philosophy stays simple - take what you have, and work the best without complaining. The good part is that all these players are aware of their duties in the national team, and we look forward to them adopting into our system fast once they join us.”

New players

The national team camp and friendlies in March against Belarus and Bahrain will be a chance for Stimac to see new players who have done well in the ongoing eighth season of ISL. “I have been watching every single game and admiring the boys for giving everything they have for their clubs. It’s been terrible for everyone involved since the pandemic started, but the job needs to be done. At the same time, we need to commend the super organisational capabilities of the two leagues being held simultaneously under current circumstances - that, too, when footballing activities all over have stumbled a bit.

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“Some new players emerged this season and most probably I will have a closer look at some of them in the upcoming camp in March. We will only be able to gauge their maturity when we get a chance to play international matches. We have around 24-25 regular players, and at the moment with them performing well in the league, it’s not easy for anyone to break in.”

A total of 24 teams will participate in the tournament in China next year. The six group winners and the best five second-placed teams earn a ticket to the Asian Cup, which is slated to kick off next year on June 16. The international friendlies will certainly help the team in its preparations, the coach said.

“That’s part of our preparations for the third round of qualifiers, and there we need to show some resilience and creativity. No need to say that those two games should serve our players to mature, and gain more experience against stronger sides. But for all of them it’s the start of the competition to gain that coveted place in the starting line-up for the June qualifiers,” said Stimac.

“So far, India have been a part of only four editions out of the overall 17 editions that have taken place. Now as the head coach of the Blue Tigers, we want to make it to successive editions of the AFC Asian Cup, as that will further substantiate all the good work that we are doing at the moment,” he said.