Igor Stimac has completed ten matches as head coach of the Indian football team but has overseen just one victory in those games. The Blue Tigers have lost five matches and drawn the remaining four under the Croatian with the goalless draw against Qatar in Doha in the ongoing 2022 Fifa World Cup qualifiers being the highlight of his stint so far.
Apart from that extraordinary result, India’s performance in the World Cup qualifiers has been below par. They drew 1-1 against Bangladesh at home and were saved by an injury-time goal in the match against Afghanistan that had a similar scoreline. The two draws and defeats to Oman, first in September and the second on Tuesday, have put Stimac under pressure early in his job.
However, the Croatian has been defiant, defending himself by comparing India’s current points tally in the qualifiers to the previous World Cup qualifiers campaign.
“The facts are there. In the last World Cup qualifiers, there were five consecutive defeats,” Stimac said. “Now we have three draws two defeats. Last time, we had zero points, now we have three points.”
“We have more games and we are on our way to achieve what we promised we work on which is competing in Asian Cup, doing better than before once we get there and preparing the team for the future and go into next qualifiers with higher expectations.”
He further gave an example of India’s performance parameters in the AFC Asian Cup under former coach Stephen Constantine, citing improvement in the number of fitness, passes and pass percentage since he took charge.
“The facts are there for the fitness of players. When you take numbers from Asian Cup under Constantine and last five games are, the average number of passes at the Asian Cup was 242 and now we have 400,” he said.
“The passing accuracy was 67 percent back then and now it’s 82 percent. We reduced long passes from 25 percent to 15 and developed match tempo, which means the running quality in the game, from 13 points to 15.”
Despite the improvements in these parameters, India’s performance in the tournament has not been impressive as they lie fourth in the group just above Bangladesh. In the five games, they have three draws which gives India three points, below Qatar, Oman and Afghanistan.
While Stimac said that it was no excuse, injuries to major players at crucial junctures of the tournament made it difficult for India to perform to it’s potential.
“We faced big difficulties in regards to the opponents, climate but these are not excuses,” he said. “But injury problems were the most difficult, losing the most important players in regards to stamina, character.”
“Not having Sandesh Jhingan, Rowlin Borges and Amarjit Singh, and then Pranoy Halder missing out a couple of matches initially and also injuring during the Oman match, these were big enough for us in gaining better results.”
Halder had shoulder dislocation in the game against Oman on Tuesday which Stimac said was was “unexpected.”
Adil Khan aggravated his hamstring injury during same match while Beke injured his groin in the second half of the match. Both Khan and Beke were carrying old injuries.
Another major issue with India in the qualifiers that the they managed to score only three goals in five games. The goals came against Bangladesh, Afghanistan and one in the loss against Oman.
The Croatian was critical of Indian players’ ability to score in international matches and said that how can a player score when he has never scored when playing the leagues in India.
“Why could we not score goals? Can you mention one Indian player who plays a striker in the league?” he said. “I don’t work with players on a daily basis. I work with them five days before the game. The good thing is we are creating chances.”
Even India’s talismanic captain Sunil Chhetri was off-color in the games and failed to score a goal.
“Sunil Chhetri is doing his best to keep scoring goals,” Stimac said. “He got some good chance against Afghanistan but did not score that day. But he is very valuable to us.
“His body is like a 29-year-old so as long as he is training like he is, and giving his best to the national team, he is with us.”
Now with India playing a World Cup qualifier game in March, Stimac wants players to focus on performing for their club sides, especially the I-League which launched its 13th season on Thursday in New Delhi.
“All players in India team came through I-League,” he said. “It’s up to them how they are going to perform, represent themselves and in clubs. I will come to watch it live whenever I can to support and show them that they should not feel lonely and forgotten. They are important to Indian football.”