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2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers: 'We are very clear about the starting XI against Oman,' says Indian football coach Igor Stimac

SENIOR ANALYST
Feature
04 Sep 2019, 21:58 IST

Igor Stimac looks on at India's players during a practice session in Guwahati
Igor Stimac looks on at India's players during a practice session in Guwahati

The Indian football team begins their 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers campaign on Thursday when they lock horns against familiar opponents Oman. The Igor Stimac-coached side will be coming into this clash on the back of a disappointing Intercontinental Cup campaign where they lost to Tajikistan and DPR Korea before drawing against Syria.

The Croatian is happy with the preparations and looking forward to the game.

Our preparation went very well. I am very happy as a coach. We had three campaigns. This is the third one. I am happy with the improvement in our game, the conditioning the players did, their fitness levels and understanding of the game, which I expected from them. We are well concentrated, well prepared, and can't wait for the game to start

One worrying aspect of the Indian team during the King's Cup and Intercontinental Cup was that Igor Stimac rotated his starting eleven heavily and many wondered if he is yet to figure out the best eleven on the pitch. The 2002 FIFA World Cup bronze medallist, however, squashed those thoughts.

We are absolutely clear about the starting XI for tomorrow's game. The players know it for the last seven days. In case anyone fails, the rest of them are fit and ready to come from the bench. But, I consider each one of them who are participating in the last three campaigns as a candidate in the future for the team. Obviously, we need to keep track of their form in the clubs. The ISL will start soon. We are going to see their performances and that is how we will send invitations for players to participate in the World Cup Qualifiers.

Injuries remained one of the problems head coach Igor Stimac had to endure. Jeje Lalpekhlua is yet to recuperate fully. Meanwhile, the Croatian also laid stress on the fact that he missed some vital training sessions while preparing the team for India's matches in Intercontinental Cup. Things could have been better had India not missed those training sessions.

One of the difficulties was injuries. I couldn't see some of the players who were under Mr Constantine here. Jeje was an important player in the squad and we hope that he gets fit and comes back very soon. We suffered some injuries in Hero Intercontinental Cup.
Another setback was that these two tournaments which we participated were announced before I was appointed as a coach. I would have somehow differently prepared for the Qualifiers. For me, the training sessions were much more important than the games. And, to be honest, I was not happy to play the games because I was losing the time necessary for practice and implementing a new style of play for our players.
So, when you miss 20 days playing games and not have enough practice, then there is a setback for you. We couldn't go with all style the Indian team has played. We tried to introduce many young players into the Indian national team, something which we can build on in the future."
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One worrying aspect of the Indian team is their defense. The back-four have conceded 13 goals in 5 matches under the tutelage of Igor Stimac, keeping only one clean sheet. But, the 51-year-old also laid stress on their brilliant performance against Thailand and Syria.

We conceded some silly goals and it was no different from the past. But, we also played well against better opponents. Against Thailand and Syria, we showed that we can play good teams in an organised way for 90 minutes. So, that will be our way for tomorrow's game. Good strong defensive block and organised game in each part of the pitch.

On giving chances to youngsters, different styles of play and the threat of Qatar in FIFA World Cup Qualifiers

The Indian team only got younger after Igor Stimac's appointment as the average age of the team across five matches was 24.76, roughly two years shorter than the average of 26.45 of the team which featured in India's last AFC Asian Cup match against Bahrain.

I always believe in youth because they bring a lot of motivational points to the team. We have Amarjit. We have Narender. We have Sahal. We have Thapa. There is Anwar Ali. Sarthak, he is there and many others. We have to make sure that when the day comes for Sunil to leave, I hope it doesn't come in the next 3-5 years at least, we are secured about our future. This is good work we have done in the last three months.
I know some of us are upset about how we conceded too many goals in some games and certain areas. But, I also felt that you started to feel proud of how we started to play football. And, that was why I was working to build up a new way to play for the Indian national team. That's why I brought in so many new players, the ones which have good technical abilities. The ones who are not only good in passing but also like Amarjit who brings height and passing at the same time. I feel very sorry he is not going to be without us. He absolutely deserved to start the game tomorrow. But. this is life and things like that happen. We are waiting for him."

India's head coach Igor Stimac also mentioned that the style of football which India will play against Qatar will vary to a large extent to that they will play against Oman.

Everyone would love to play technical football with lots of passing, possession, and creating lots of chances. But, when there is an opponent which is strong in all lines you cannot do that. You need to defend and give good counter-attacks. We were building up different styles of play because after a few days we are going to face Qatar which is absolutely the best team in Asia. We can't insist on possession and keeping the ball against them. We need to be clever. We need to be smart. We cannot focus only on the technical aspect like ball possession. We need to adapt to different styles of the game depending on the opponent, health of the players, form, and fitness."

While many fans believed being in the same group as that of reigning Asian champions Qatar could hurt India's prospects of qualifying to the next round, Igor Stimac believes every team is beatable.

I was never afraid of any team which we are going to play against. We show respect to everyone. But, when we come out on the pitch, there is only one idea and that is how to win the game. And, we are going to do everything to achieve that. That's the belief I want from the dressing room. There is no team that is unbeatable. You just need to be wise, concentrated, defend well, and taking your chance when the time comes.

When asked if India has what it takes to progress to the next round of FIFA World Cup Qualifiers, Igor Stimac opined that Qatar and Oman are the favorites but India will not back down.

Oman and Qatar are obviously the favorites to go further. Our first aim is to continuously participate in the last qualifying stage of the Asian Cup. In the meantime, if the chance comes, for the third round of the World Cup Qualifiers. But, let's be realistic. This team needs a little bit more time to advance the game. And, if we structure our football for 12 months continuously then we have a great chance of making India successful at the international level.
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