Stimac's 35 picks for Indian football, who did what to catch his eye

The average age of the Indian squad is 25, indicating Stimac’s preference for blooding youngsters and that he has recognised the players who are technically adept in playing with the ball.

ATK Mohun Bagan’s Manvir Singh has racked up five goals this season and finds a spot in the Indian squad. - ISL

On February 27, 2020, India’s men’s football team coach Igor Stimac named a 43-man squad for a national camp ahead of the World Cup qualifier against Qatar. The Croatian couldn’t get a closer look at the squad with the COVID-19 pandemic interrupting proceedings. Nearly a year later, Stimac has drawn up a 35-man preliminary squad for the upcoming friendlies against the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Oman.

Interestingly, Stimac, who was seen travelling around the country to scout national team prospects during the 2019-20 season, hasn’t travelled to Goa for the ongoing Indian Super League (ISL) season taking place inside a bio-secure bubble. He will meet up with the squad in Dubai for the preparatory camp, which is set to commence on March 15.

Young guns

While the profile of the players selected remains largely similar, there have been expectantly several changes – 12 new faces – from the previous squad. The average age of the squad is 25, indicating Stimac’s preference for blooding youngsters and that he has recognised the players who are technically adept in playing with the ball. “It’s been a difficult year for all of us and finally we are all getting together. It will be great to meet some new young guns and to check how bright our future is with them,” said Stimac.

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Hyderabad FC’s young Indian core has certainly caught the eyes of Stimac with six players – the most from a single club – earning call-ups. Hyderabad head coach Manolo Marquez kept faith with his domestic Indian talent and produced results despite missing key foreign players for the early part of the season to make the team playoffs hopefuls. In the end, it fell short only on the final day of the league stage. The uncapped Liston Colaco (22 years old), Akash Mishra (19), Hitesh Sharma (23) and Chinglensana Singh (24) were regular first-team members for the first time in their ISL careers and they have been rewarded for their consistent showing. If not for his injury, right-back Asish Rai too would have been part of the travelling party.

Goal-scoring the major concern

Goal-scoring has been a major concern in the short time since Stimac took charge of the national team in 2019 and it will continue to be so. In the 10 matches he has coached so far, India has scored just 10 goals and 36-year-old skipper Sunil Chhetri managed half of them. Among Indians in the ISL, only Chhetri continues to play as a central striker. In an interaction with the media last March, Stimac said, “I cannot take someone who has never played as a striker (at the top level) and put him in the national team as a striker. From where am I going to find a striker?”

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ATK Mohun Bagan’s Manvir Singh found a new lease of life in the wide forward role by racking up five goals and could still have an impact in the ISL playoffs. The only other forward named in the squad is the untested Ishan Pandita, who has scored four goals from a meagre 56 minutes for FC Goa.

The uncapped Bipin Singh finished the league stage as the second-highest Indian goal contributor with five goals and four assists playing for a free-scoring Mumbai City FC. It will be a big step up for the Manipuri, and matches against the best teams in Asia could mean he will see less of the ball and be required to perform more defensive duties. Winger Jerry Mawihmingthanga, who finished the season with two goals and five assists for Odisha FC, seemed to have missed out on retaining his spot due to his club’s form.

Sticking with the familiar

Stimac seems to have stuck with the familiarity in personnel in his selection of Udanta Singh, who had another underwhelming season with Bengaluru FC. While Udanta has just two goals and an assist from his last two seasons, the uncapped Jerry has racked up four goals and 10 assists in the right-wing position. Another player who missed a call-up was Goa winger Alexander Jesuraj, who set up four goals and struck once while being a regular fixture in the starting XI.

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Goalkeeper Arindam Bhattacharja had his best season yet with 10 clean sheets and conceding just 15 goals – ranked first on both counts. But there are question marks over his ability to play out from the back. The 31-year-old averages just over five passes per game in a low block ATK Mohun Bagan side, which could have gone against his selection. Amrinder Singh could emerge as a challenger to Gurpreet Singh Sandhu for the No. 1 jersey after a near-stellar season under the bar for the Mumbai City shot-stopper. Building on from last season’s good form, Amrinder managed nine shutouts to Gurpreet’s four. His passing from the back has improved, too, with an accuracy of 70 percent in a possession-oriented side to Gurpreet’s 55.

“The two matches against Oman and the UAE mean a lot to Indian football. It’s been a while since we last played and this is a great opportunity to check where we stand at the moment,” Stimac said in an AIFF release, while also acknowledging the demanding nature of the ongoing ISL season on the players.

The friendly matches against teams ranked 74th and 81st in the FIFA rankings will be crucial for Stimac in his preparation for the remaining World Cup and Asian Cup qualifiers recommencing in June.