Igor Stimac's toughest assignment as India football head coach is now just two days away. The Blue Tigers begin the last leg of their FIFA World Cup 2022 Qualifiers on 3 June against Asian Champions Qatar. They will next play Bangladesh on 7 June and Afghanistan on 15 June.
Placed in the Group E of World Cup Qualifiers, India are currently in the fourth spot with three points from five matches. Qatar lead the table with 16 from six games. Virtually out of the World Cup race, India are aiming to finish in the third spot which will guarantee a place in the third round of qualifying for the 2023 Asian Cup and help them avoid the play-off round.
However, for a team still searching for their first win in the qualifiers, finishing third would be nothing short of a gargantuan task. The preparations for the matches have obviously been far from ideal. The 2020-21 season of the Indian Super League got over in March and only the players from Bengaluru FC and FC Goa have witnessed some competitive football lately, as a result of their involvement in the AFC tournaments.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, India's plans to play friendlies and hold long national camps were not executed. The only two friendlies that India played in March saw Stimac try out a lot of young players who had shone in the ISL. The squad for qualifiers, however, sees the return of experienced players like Subhasish Bose, Pronay Halder, and Udanata Singh.
As we approach the qualifiers, the Indian football ecosystem is grappling with a lot of questions: Will Stimac opt for youngsters over experienced campaigners against Qatar? Will India sit back and defend deep in the qualifiers? What will be the result of the matches?
We caught up with Indian football great Renedy Singh and former Bengaluru FC and Mohun Bagan player Darren Caldeira to find out the answers to the above questions. The former footballers pick their preferred line-up for the Qatar game, explain the rationale behind the choices, and shared their expectations from the upcoming three matches.
Preferred lineup: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Suresh Singh Wangjam, Sandesh Jhingan, Chinglensana Singh, Akash Mishra, Glan Martins, Rowllin Borges, Bipin Singh, Brandon Fernandes, Manvir Singh, Sunil Chhetri.
I will go with Gurpreet (as goalkeeper). He didn't have the best ISL but he played really well against Qatar in the last match. He has a good height and for the Qatar game, he will be a good pick. (Chinglensana) Sana and Sandesh as centre-backs. On left, I will have Akash. He has got speed, legs to run and the guy is a fighter. On right, people may think I am crazy but I will go with Suresh. He is not the best passer but can defend, can run. He played in that position also once or twice for Bengaluru. We need a player like him because against Qatar we are going to defend for our lives.
In the holding (position of midfield), I will have Martins. I really liked how he played in AFC Champions League matches. Martins and Borges as holding (midfielders). On top of this pairing, I will have Brandon. We don't need many ball players against Qatar. On the right, Manvir, because he did well against Oman. He can run and had a good ISL. On the left, the player who has done really well recently, Bipin. And in the front, I will start with Sunil. He doesn't have to play 90 minutes. Take the best out of him and when he is tired we can put Pandita in.
We have quality players like (Anirudh) Thapa, (Abdul) Sahal, but against Qatar we need runners. These guys can come in for the other two matches (against Bangladesh and Afghanistan). We also have Apuia (Lalengmawia), (Mohammad) Yasir. We will need these technical players against Bangladesh.
Against Afghanistan, we have to attack. For that game also I will have the same line-up as that against Qatar.
How do you see India approaching the Qatar game?
As a coach, he (Stimac) wanted to see the new players who had done well in ISL. So he fielded them in the friendlies but we have seen that playing for the national team against high-level international players is a lot different than playing in ISL. We tried to play a beautiful game, play from the back and it didn't work. It was good that the coach gave chances to players to prove themselves. On 3 March, we have to defend for our life. In the last match against Qatar, defensively it was one of the best games in many, many years. I was watching that game again a few days back, defensively our boys did very well but in attack, we still have a long way to go.
So my thinking is we have to defend but what happens if we concede in the first 15 minutes. If we open up again then we will concede more. It's a very difficult situation for the coach. Can we defend so well again against Qatar for 90 minutes? We will have to be defensive but defending so deep from the first half will be very difficult. One goal will change everything. So, India have to defend but they can't defend so deep from the first till 90 minutes. In the last game against Qatar, we had three chances for a counter-attack but we were not quick enough. If we are defending deep from the start, we need to make use of our counter-attacks.
Forget about winning, but I would be happy if we come out with a draw against Qatar. But (against Bangladesh and Afghanistan) we have to win. Against them, we have done well in the past.
Preferred lineup: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Pritam Kotal, Sandesh Jhingan, Chinglensana Singh, Akash Mishra, Glan Martins, Rowllin Borges, Bipin Singh, Brandon Fernandes, Sunil Chhetri, Manvir Singh.
Gurpreet should be starting in the goal. I feel Amrinder (Singh) had a better (ISL) season but still feel Gurpreet should be starting. He has got the experience and has been in this situation before. I am pretty sure the coach would go ahead with Gurpreet. I will have Pritam Kotal as right back and Sandesh and Sana should be there. He (Sana) is a little inexperienced, at least at the international stage but he is a solid defender, somebody who can also play out from the back. I don't think they will be doing a lot of that but he is someone who is pretty calm and composed on the ball. He and Jhingan together would be a decent combination. Akash Mishra on the left. We need a solid left-footed defender.
On the left, I want Bipin Singh. I was a bit torn between Bipin and (Lallianzuala) Chhangte and Ashique (Kuruniyan) but I feel Bipin has been doing really well. You need to continue with him. He is someone with a lot of energy, can also help defensively. He should be starting against Qatar. In center midfield, Glan should be making it. Only because he has been playing recently. You know now that he can play against a slightly superior team, we have seen that in the AFC Champions League.
He can pass the ball but also has a fight about him. You need him to break the play. As his partner, I am going with Rowllin Borges if he is fit. I will have Brandon on the right. This may look a bit defensive but there's Bipin and Brandon for attacking. Brandon has improved his defensive work also. He is got the technical ability, someone who can do something with corners and free-kicks and I think we will be banking a lot on them. Rowllin has got the legs, can put in a tackle.
I will play Sunil in the hole (behind the striker). Some experts may say it will be better for him to come off the bench but if you look at him, he is somebody who can run the entire 90 minutes. Sunil is one player who can turn the game around, he has done it time and again. On top, I will have Manvir Singh because he has got a lot of energy. If you don't have someone to pass you can always put the ball in the channel and you know Manvir is going to run for it. He works very hard. We now know he can score goals and is good in the air.
How do you see India approaching the Qatar game?
In the friendlies, Stimac wanted to see how everyone performs at the bigger stage. There were a lot of cracks for everyone to see. But I feel now he probably knows his best XI. He won't want to concede early. He would want to keep it tight at the back and probably want to something through counters. As soon as we get the ball, we should try to get Brandon, Bipin involved, Sunil somewhere in the hole receiving the ball. Manvir could be making those runs. I probably don't think he will be going for a win but if we get a point it is going to be a massive massive result. Even set pieces can be a major asset for the team.
I am being optimistic about the results as I feel the team has the capability to at least get a draw out of the Qatar game. I am not saying we are going to win but feel like we have enough of the quality in the team to somehow defend and maybe try to get something through set pieces or counters. Afghanistan are a really good team. That's another tough game but I feel we can beat Afghanistan and Bangladesh. We should be going for a win (against Afghanistan and Bangladesh).
Goalkeepers: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Amrinder Singh, Dheeraj Singh.
Defenders: Pritam Kotal, Rahul Bheke, Narender Gehlot, Chinglensana Singh, Sandesh Jhingan, Adil Khan, Akash Mishra, Subhashish Bose.
Midfielders: Udanta Singh, Brandon Fernandes, Liston Colaco, Rowllin Borges, Glan Martins, Anirudh Thapa, Pronoy Halder, Suresh Singh, Lalengmawia, Abdul Sahal, Mohammad Yasir, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Bipin Singh, Ashique Kuruniyan.
Forwards: Manvir Singh, Sunil Chhetri, Ishan Pandita.