We need to be clinical against superior opponents: Igor Stimac

Doha (Qatar), (UNI) Landing on Saturday evening, India became the first of the 23 visiting teams to arrive here for the AFC Asian Cup 2023.

With less than two weeks until the Blue Tigers’ first game against Australia, head coach Igor Stimac and his boys have no time to waste.

Ahead of the team’s first training session on New Year’s Eve, Stimac spoke to the media in a pre-tournament press conference from the team hotel in Doha.

“We wanted to come here early, settle down properly, and not waste time travelling later. We start our work together today. We’ve planned our schedule with four sessions in two days, rest on the third day, and so on. On 7th January, we will have a training game among us,” he said.

The batch of 26 players come to Doha on the back of a demanding domestic season, which has also seen some key names like Anwar Ali, Jeakson Singh Thounaojam, Ashique Kuruniyan and Rohit Kumar miss out on the Asian Cup due to injuries.

Expanding more on how that will shape up the team, Stimac said, “Things changed dramatically for us with injuries in the last few months. We are not as good as we could be at the moment. We have lost physicality and passing ability. But we have no time to think about that and need to focus on those who we have here.”

“We need good height and strong players to defend against set pieces and crosses as all our opponents pose a real threat in that sense. There’s no option of experimenting and bringing new faces in at this point in time. We have players who have been with us in the past. Never mind the fact that for 17 of the 26 players, it’s their first time being on a big stage like this. It will be a great experience for them,” the Croatian added.

Skipper Sunil Chhetri is set to partake in his third Asian Cup campaign. The 39-year-old is India’s top-scorer at the tournament, having netted twice each in 2011 (also in Qatar) and 2019.

Apart from Chhetri, goalkeepers Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Amrinder Singh and Vishal Kaith, defenders Sandesh Jhingan, Pritam Kotal and Subhasish Bose, and midfielders Udanta Singh and Anirudh Thapa make up the nine players who have been part of a past Asian Cup squad.

“The first part we need to work on is bringing the focus back to the national team and raising our fitness levels. We will then see where we stand and decide on our approach against Australia. We have many players from Mohun Bagan, who have had poor results recently,” said Stimac said.

“So we need to bring the confidence back in the players who have low self-esteem. But I’m also happy with how some of our players have performed with their clubs, like Sahal (Abdul Samad), who has been assisting a lot and Sandesh (Jhingan), who has stabilised FC Goa’s defence,” he said.

Mental development aside, Stimac also has a clear idea of what needs to be done on the pitch and stressed the aspects of the game which need redressal ahead of the three big games.

Former England international Trevor Sinclair has joined Stimac’s staff as an assistant coach, which could prove fruitful considering the short preparation time.

“We are rank outsiders in our group. What can I say about Australia, they are one of the favourites here. Uzbekistan are the dark horses with some excellent recent results. We know that we will not have much ball possession and will not get many chances to come near their goal. But whatever we get, we need to be clinical and have a clear idea,” Stimac said.

“But first, we need to work on not conceding from set pieces, and then on scoring them. It’s great to have Trevor with us. He has great experience. He has been part of player development programs and academies which have produced great players. We needed a guy like him to help us in a short time,” he shared.

All in all, as India gear up for a second straight Asian Cup campaign for the first time, Stimac has only one message for his boys – enjoy yourselves. A tournament like this comes only once every four years, and you’ve got to make the most out of it.

“I want our boys to enjoy the tournament, get great experience, keep their shape tight, and not think about the results. I’m not putting any pressure on players. We will go out and fight,” Stimac added.

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