For the All India Football Federation, the high-profile appointment of Igor Stimac as the head coach of the Indian football team hasn’t gone to plan. Under the Croatian World Cupper, the Blue Tigers have won just once in 12 matches.

His tenure was supposed to take India to greater heights after a promising Asian Cup campaign in 2019 and it seemed to be on the right track when the Blue Tigers held Asian champions Qatar to a 0-0 draw in the World Cup qualifiers. But the tame draws against Bangladesh and Afghanistan that followed provided a reality check that not many saw coming.

And since then it’s been all downhill thanks largely to the Covid-19 pandemic that kept the Indian team away from any kind of competitive action for 492 days. But for Stimac, the results either side of the pandemic – 1-0 loss to Oman in the World Cup qualifiers in November 2019 and a 1-1 draw against the same opponents before a 0-6 loss to UAE in March 2021 – have invited pressure into the equation.

As India prepare for three World Cup qualifiers in 12 days, here are the pressing problems facing the Blue Tigers that Stimac must find solutions to sooner rather than later.

A lack of clarity

Barring games against Oman at home and Qatar away, Indian players have looked lost in matches under the Croatian, struggling to cope with the challenge at hand.

The lack of cohesion among the players and a lack of clarity in the thought process has been apparent in India’s attacking performances in the current reign where they have scored just 11 times in 12 matches. Bangladesh and Afghanistan didn’t have to sweat a lot to keep India at bay, an approach that was perfected by Oman in the next match who hit India on the turnovers and saw through a 1-0 victory

While there was a definite attempt to play a possession-based game at the start of the Stimac regime, those principles of play have been slowly surrendered as teams found a way to thwart it. The lack of precision in India’s passing was exposed in the 6-0 thrashing of UAE where the Blue Tigers went down even without any signs of a fight. It was a game where Stimac had fielded many youngsters but not many seem to know what their role was on the pitch.

The Croatian has started 38 different players in his XIs since taking over. A lot of it was forced due to injuries and the gap due to the pandemic, but there are doubts whether Stimac actually knows his best eleven more than two years into his stint.

Stimac’s reign has had an experimental feel to it so far but the time has now come for him to show that he can do the business when it matters. The pressure is on.

Sunil Chhetri, his successor and lack of goals

It’s a question that has for long haunted Indian football but Stimac who was expected to deliver a succession plan, like his predecessors is heavily reliant on the Indian captain to lift his team. Chhetri has scored 46% of the team’s goals under the Croatian.

The 53-year-old though only shoulders a very small part of the blame for failing to find Chhetri’s successor, but he may feel the need for one a lot more than any of his predecessors. The Indian captain is fast approaching the age of 37 and hasn’t scored in his last three matches for the Blue Tigers. While he still remains a force, there are doubts as to whether he can continue to carry the team on his own.

The Croatian was quick to temper expectations around the captain who may not play all three World Cup qualifiers given the lack of match fitness, recent Covid-19 infection and its after-effects.

“Having Sunil back is great for everyone. But we have to be careful as we have three games in 12 days. So I will have to see where to best use Sunil Chhetri. The games against Bangladesh and Afghanistan are more important to us and I will plan the best way possible for him,” the 53-year-old said.

Stimac has Manvir Singh, who scored an impressive goal against Oman in a friendly in March, to call upon along with rookie Ishan Pandita who has shown plenty of promise in the ISL. But can India can rely on these two strikers to deliver in Chhetri’s absence in such crunch games?

There is little evidence to suggest that India will do better without Chhetri than with him and it’s a fact that will only become problematic for Stimac with time.

Bangladesh and Afghanistan are acid tests

There is a lot of interest in India’s match against Qatar especially after the 0-0 draw that India pulled off against the same opponent two years ago. But it’s not a match that will tell us a lot about Indian football’s immediate future. The previous World Cup qualifying matches have shown that a good result against the Asian champions doesn’t necessarily count as a mark of improvement and the outcomes against the likes of Bangladesh and Afghanistan are equally crucial.

With the AFC Asian Cup qualification now ahead of the Indian team, these games against the two lesser teams have a much larger significance not just in terms of the table but also in determining India’s chances of making it to the 2023 AFC Asian Cup.

From hereon, India are likely to face more teams of the calibre of Bangladesh and Afghanistan in the Asian Cup qualification than daunting tests like Qatar. Breaking down these teams and protecting against their counter-attacks will be key for Stimac’s men going forward.

Against these lower-ranked teams, India will have to control games and find ways to create chances in close spaces to beat them and thus enhance their chances of qualification for the Asian Cup. A far from easy test that they have failed at so far in this campaign.

The man between the sticks?

Stimac has some selection headaches ahead of him and the one in goal stands out the most. Amrinder Singh played India’s 1-1 draw against Oman while it was Gurpreet Singh Sandhu who saw UAE ship six past him in the next game. While Sandhu wasn’t exactly at fault for any of those goals, Amrinder’s performances in the ISL have been better than Sandhu’s last season. Having led Mumbai City FC to the ISL title, Stimac will need to find a strong reason to deny him a starting spot.

For once, it’s a good headache for Stimac but a big decision to make nonetheless. With a game against Qatar, an opponent that Sandhu so heroically thwarted in the reverse match, it will be difficult to deny him another chance, but coach Stimac will be expected to make decisions based on merit and not sentiments. Thus the goalkeeping spot that was almost Sandhu’s to lose not so long ago seems up for grabs for his competitors.

Qualification scenarios and pressure to deliver

A third-place finish in the group will secure India’s passage to the third round of the Asian Cup qualification. A fourth-place finish may also help India get there but the Blue Tigers will have to be among the four best fourth-placed teams across the groups in World Cup qualifiers. Failure to achieve that or a fifth-place finish will push India into the playoffs just to get into the third round of qualification.

Currently, India occupy the fourth spot in their group, a point below Afghanistan in third. In the overall rankings for the fourth-place teams across groups, India are currently the third-best fourth-place team which means they are on course to directly qualify for the third round of Asian Cup qualifiers.

QATAR 6 5 1 0 16 1 15 16
OMAN 5 4 0 1 11 4 7 12
AFGHANISTAN 5 1 1 3 2 11 -9 4
INDIA 5 0 3 2 3 5 -2 3
BANGLADESH 5 0 1 4 2 13 -11 1

Fourth-place rankings as it stands

Pos Grp Teamvte Pld W D L GD Pts
1 G United Arab Emirates 3 1 0 2 −1 3
2 F Myanmar 4 1 0 3 −18 3
3 E India 4 0 2 2 −2 2
4 D Yemen 4 0 2 2 −6 2
5 C Hong Kong 3 0 1 2 −4 1
6 A Maldives 3 0 0 3 −7 0
7 H Sri Lanka 4 0 0 4 −15 0
8 B Nepal 4 0 0 4 −16 0

But if Fifa rankings are to be considered, India would underachieve if they finish anywhere below third place and if a Newsclick report is to be believed failure to produce good results that include wins against Afghanistan and Bangladesh would force AIFF’s hands to end Stimac’s reign as India head coach.

The Indian federation only extended the Croatian’s contract by three months and his future beyond that hinges on India’s performance and results in the upcoming games and where they finish in the World Cup qualifiers. It’s now or never for the Croatian.