Indian National team’s temporary camp in Manipur here is serving as a prelude to the country’s biggest football assignment - the Asian Cup next January. All efforts are being made under national coach Igor Stimac to find the right players who could produce the performance that could see India transcend the group league stages and reach the classification stages for the first time in the continental championship’s history.
The Tri-nation International football event has provided the opportunity for Stimac to look at the selection of 23 players, gleaned from the just-concluded Indian Super League to assess and analyse the talents who will make up the side that will carry the national flag in Doha, where the Asian Cup will be held. The first camp for ‘Mission Asian Cup’ starts in May and Stimac took the opportunity to discuss some of the players likely to be central to his preparation plans.
“When you are looking at the Asian Cup, you will see three better-ranked teams in the group and for that, we need to prepare for a good middle-press football with good counter-attacking options,” he said during an interaction. The preparations will be centered on this objective where Stimac named the biggest revelation of the season, N. Sivasakthi and Ashique Kuruniyan, as central characters.
“One of them is Sivasatkhi, the other is Ashique and we are keeping the option for the third one open. It is more about the playing system that we are planning,” Stimac said. “Sivasakthi may be very valuable to us as he has got extreme speed and can prove to be a very important option,” he added.
Keeping the evergreen captain Sunil Chhetri central to the attacking options, Stimac also put Manvir Singh and Ishan Pandita in the attacking department. He said Chhetri’s level of commitment and professionalism is a lesson for all the young players in the team. “Chhetri’s commitment level is outstanding. During the ISL final, they showed the best speed reached by a player and Chhetri was the best with something at 30 kmph. You see it as a compliment to Chhetri or embarrassment for the younger players,” Stimac noted.
“He is the proper example for all the Indian players about how to conduct themselves as professional footballers. I had a long chat with the boys in the camp, saying to them ‘you should keep in your mind that you cannot waste a moment and commit yourselves to football 16 hours a day and should rid yourselves of social media,” the National coach revealed.
“There is no point in the players opening themselves to the public. ‘Let others speak about how you commit yourselves on the pitch’. You have numerous examples here of players showing up in one season and disappearing in the next one,” he said.
Stimac also had great expectations from Manvir Singh and Ishan Pandita. “In the attack, we have Manvir (Singh) and Ishan Pandita. Unfortunately, Pandita’s career is curtailed by the foreign player policy rule. He is a proper centre forward and is valuable to the Indian team as he gives me a backup solution of having a tall and strong guy upfront. He has the killer instinct and always tries to create a chance for whatever time he is there on the pitch,” Stimac said of Pandita.
“Manvir is another player with potential and in the tests conducted at different times, he has topped the parameters like speed, agility, explosive power and endurance. You’ll hardly find a player with so many attributes of a forward. Again he is sidelined as a winger as foreign players are occupying the central position in the attack,” he said about Manvir.
Coming to the defence department, The former Croatian World Cupper said there is a lot of work to be done to have good all-rounders as wing-backs. “ISL clubs play Indians as wingers because they are linking up with the Indian side backs, who are either too attacking or too defensive and that is one area of weakness,” Stimac said.
“We are looking for a side-back who can show the right transition in attack and defence. And we have got to do a lot of work there. We have names like Akash (Mishra), Subhasish Bose, Ashish (Rai), and Rahul Bheke for the job, but they need to work a lot on their game,” he said.
About the midfielders, Stimac seemed to have a lot to choose from. “We have Suresh (Singh Wangjam), Apuia, Glan Martins, Jeakson (Singh) and Rohit Kumar as defensive midfielders and the likes of Anirudh Thapa, Sahal (Abdul Samad), Brandon (Fernandes) and Kiyan Nassiri as attacking midfielders,” he said.
Stimac offered Nassiri some special praise. “It was very nice to see Kiyan (Nassiri) play his part as a substitute in the (ISL) final. He spent most of the time on the bench for ATKMB, which was the club coach’s decision. But he will soon be with us because he has the resilience and does not have the fear to fight against stronger men. We need such players who can play fearlessly and have the ability to produce something good on the ground,” Stimac said.
Summing up his assessment Stimac said that a lot depends on the time he gets to work with the team. With a cluttered calendar keeping the players busy on club assignments, the National coach appealed to the national federation – AIFF – to work out a way to give the national team enough preparation time to make their best preparation for the Asian Cup. “I have a lot of faith in these players. Now it is the question of how much time will be provided to us to prepare the side for the Asian Cup,” he said.
“I already see it is going to be very difficult. I was very happy when China was the host and the competition was supposed to happen in June (2023). With ISL finishing in March we would have two months to prepare. Now we are in a terrible situation with the tournament shifted to January (in Doha),” he added.
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