Indian Football team head coach Igor Stimac and Lebanon head coach Aleksandar Ilic are long-time friends, ever since they were teammates at Spanish club Cádiz CF back in 1994. Now, almost three decades down the line, the Croatian and the Serbian faced off against each other in opposite dugouts for the first time. 

There’s plenty of mutual respect between the two, who always greet each other with a grin followed by a tight hug, but when the whistle sounds, the smiles give way to pensive faces, and it’s game on. Before the start of the Hero Intercontinental Cup, Stimac sent a slight warning tagged along with a warm welcome to India for Ilic’s Lebanon. “We’re going to make it very difficult for them,” he smiled then.

After Thursday’s pulsating 0-0 draw, it was Stimac who thought his side should’ve sealed the win with the numerous chances they had. Overall, he was happy with the performance and the game as a whole. “It was a good game. Lots of action. Both sides did their bits to create a good football game.

“My boys created more than enough chances to win the game, and I’m sorry for them as they couldn’t score. We deserved to win as we were the better side, but it didn’t happen. I feel sorry for the fans who came in numbers. But I use this opportunity to invite them in even bigger numbers in three days. We’re going to make sure we win the next one,” he promised.

Indian football

After all, Thursday was only a trailer for what is to come on Sunday. Both India and Lebanon knew they would meet each other in the final again before the game kicked off. Stimac clearly expects a much more determined show from his men at the weekend as India looks to regain the Hero Intercontinental Cup title they last won in 2018.

Stimac showered praises on his rock-solid backline, which has now racked up six straight clean sheets at home. “You can see the discipline in our defending, never mind the opponent. Each one of my players did the job at the back. We knew our defensive abilities would be tested today, and that’s what happened, but we did well. Today, Lebanon had only one clear chance. Mongolia and Vanuatu had none and didn’t even come near the goal. That’s what we’re building upon – keeping clean sheets,” said the Croatian.

The decision to rest Sunil Chhetri meant that Ashique Kuruniyan had to be deployed at an unnatural centre-forward position but managed to impress Stimac. And so did Udanta Singh, who was shifted to the left wing. Dynamism and flexibility in the attack have been significant aspects of India’s game plan.

“All of my boys can play in every position, whether it’s left-wing, right-wing, number 10 or centre-forward. That’s because they communicate well and understand each other. Ashique was fantastic today. He disturbed their build-up so much that they didn’t know where to pass the ball to,” praised Stimac.

“We were balanced on the wings and created equal chances from both sides. Chhangte cut inside many times. He was phenomenal – controlling the ball, turning players and creating chances. We were insisting on Udanta making more runs in behind. Their full-backs were fearful of both our wingers. And that’s what we want to happen so that they think more about defending and not come forward,” he shared.

The Blue Tigers shifted gears as the match entered the final quarter and looked the likelier of the two sides to find the winning goal. Unfortunately, it never came, and Stimac had some insights about the improvements he would like to see from the team.

“We could feel the goal coming in the last 20 minutes, but it didn’t happen. We got into good positions to deliver crosses, but we couldn’t. We need to stop running in a straight line to the corner of the pitch, as crosses from there are easy to defend. That’s one of our problems.”

“We need to keep working on that and also on our finishing. During training, if my lads miss the goal, they need to run a lap. With just the goalkeeper to beat, no defenders. And many of them run,” revealed Stimac.

After the first match against Mongolia, Stimac made nine changes to the line-up to face Vanuatu. 10 more changes followed against Lebanon. Sandesh Jhingan was the only constant in all three games.

Summing up the reasoning behind such heavy rotation, Stimac said, “It’s not about experimenting or not finding the right first eleven. We are rich with wonderful players, and I need to keep using them.“Today, we looked like a very organised, compact and disciplined side with a clear idea of what needs to be done. And that’s richness when you’ve got so many good players to choose from,” he added.

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