For the second year in a row, an Indian Super League season was held within a bio-secure bubble. But now as the domestic circuit nears its close, away from Goa, the national team has assembled in Pune for a camp ahead of its first stepping stone to the AFC Cup qualifiers in June.
The Indian team – dubbed ‘Blue Tigers’ - are scheduled to play two international friendlies in Bahrain against the hosts and Belarus on March 23 and 26. And the national coach Igor Stimac hopes to get a glimpse of where the team is in terms of its preparation for the important continental qualifiers a few months away.
“We have chosen the opponents carefully. Bahrain is one of the sides which is competitive, it’ll show us where we stand at the moment,” Stimac said in a press conference on Monday.
“We’re going to give an opportunity to some of the players who performed really well this season and see how they can play in an international stage. (And see) if we can count on them for the qualifiers.”
Once the ISL concludes on March 20, the remaining players from the 38 listed for the camp (some players are competing in the playoffs) will assemble in Pune before making the trip to Bahrain. In the camp though are eight new faces Stimac has identified for their performances this season.
It includes goalkeepers Prabhsukhan Singh Gill and Mohammad Nawaz, defenders Deepak Tangri and Roshan Singh, and midfielders Vikram Pratap Singh, VP Suhair, Jerry Mawihmingthanga and Aniket Jadhav.
Stimac, a vital cog in the Croatian team that reached the semi-final of the 1998 World Cup, asserted he wants to give each player “certain minutes on the pitch to check their form and capacity in international games.”
That is, however, the most important thing for the coach from the upcoming friendlies – to see how the players perform in an international setting.
“I’m looking to have a closer look at some of the new faces and find out how much they can do at the international stage. The pace of the ISL is far below the pace of international football,” he explained.
“Sometimes we are impressed by some players in the ISL, but when it comes to international football, there’s nothing they can do to help us at that stage. We need to make sure about what their qualities are and make sure that the team for June is the best we can get.”
Starting on June 8, the Indian team will compete in Group D of the Asian Cup qualifiers, along with Hong Kong, Cambodia and the tricky Afghanistan outfit. Only the winner of the group will earn direct qualification to the continental championship that takes place in China next year.
It was at this stage of the qualifiers for the 2019 edition through which the team made its first appearance at the AFC Asian Cup since 2011. That time they topped a group that included Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar and Macau. But the format then was home-and away allowing each team to play the other twice (each would play six matches).
The format this year, however, provides one host nation for each group, and each team players the other once, reducing the margin of error. India, though, gets the benefit of being the host nation for Group D and all matches are expected to take place at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata – where India played their last international match on home soil over two years ago.
“Our chances are there. We are favourites in the group and we are hosting the group. There’s nothing to complain about but we need to earn it on the pitch. There are three other teams also fighting to qualify,” Stimac said.
Following the sojourn to Bahrain, the coach also hopes to get in place four friendly matches before the qualifiers in June to help the team get more exposure and match practice.
“We’re also looking to prepare a good training camp and plan for May and beginning of June before the qualifiers. We’re looking for another four friendly games before the qualifiers. Hopefully, by next week we’ll have that agreed,” he added.
For the time being though, Stimac and his coaching staff will travel to Bahrain with a team bereft of the injured Sunil Chheti (goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and defender Sandesh Jhingan will be expected to lead the team instead).
Stimac, though, will have his eyes set on the younger guard. The new faces will be looking to make a mark, and the coach is hoping to be impressed.