FIFA World Cup qualifiers: Coach Igor Stimac puts his job on line as India play virtual must-win match | Football News

India football World Cup

When the going gets tough, Igor Stimac likes to dust off the classics.

Ahead of the second World Cup qualifier clash between India and Afghanistan in as many as five days, the Croatian bemoaned the fickle nature of support for the national team (‘Criticising players is not helping’). He reiterated that India’s best performances were preceded by national camps held by him (‘In my four years there were three long camps that we had.’) and that the country’s inability to stop their goal drought was a problem before he arrived and would remain after he would leave (‘It’s because foreigners are playing in the important positions in ISL.’).

Amongst all of those statements, the 59-year-old also made it clear that the team still has a good chance of making it into the third round of the World Cup qualifiers. But what would happen if the country was unable to make it into that promised land of the third round of the WCQ?

“Never mind the contract, If I don’t take India to the third round, I will leave,” said Stimac at the pre-match press conference in Guwahati on Monday. “With my pride, with my honour, with everything that I have done in the last five years. But if we qualify, there’s plenty of work that has to be done.”

It was once again quite apparent that the head coach was looking past Afghanistan, despite being cowered into a 0-0 draw on the road, against a team that routinely halts the Indians from taking a victory against them during his run as the Indian boss. Yet the Croatian continued to look at Kuwait as the ultimate game for India in this round of football.

Even with his calculations, a win against Afghanistan is crucial. Kuwait have already beaten them once 4-0 and have a return leg at their mercy, while India has to face this Afghan team at home on Tuesday followed by a Qatar encounter in Doha and then a win-or-walk-way scenario for Stimac against Kuwait in Kolkata. Two out of these three games need to be won – and this latest game will be their easiest. Stimac asked for some realistic demands to be entrusted onto the team and said that the long travel time combined with only three days of training meant that it was unlikely that the team would play any better than they had but that a win was necessary.

“We are disappointed with the first game, realistically it’s impossible to play well after a long journey. We are in a really good position holding the 2nd place. Tomorrow’s result is not going to change much. The game against Kuwait will be decisive,” said Stimac.

Festive offer

India’s last international game in Guwahati was against Oman five years ago, one where the national team led for 81 minutes but then conceded two late goals and a home loss. At the time, captain Sunil Chhetri had scored five of the eight goals in Stimac’s young reign and questions on what India’s attack would look like after an ageing Chhetri’s departure, were being asked.
The Indian captain is not only on the verge of hitting a personal milestone of 150 games but will match his longest goal drought of seven games if he plays on Tuesday but doesn’t score. He has also scored in his debut, as well as his 25th, 50th, 75th, 100th and 125th games and if continuity were to be beckoned, now would be the perfect time for a goal or two.

It’s been a problem that India has faced for most of their time under Stimac, but particularly over games since November 2023. While in most games, the national team was simply unable to create any chances of note (like the three games they played at the Asian Cup), against Afghanistan, Chhetri felt that India were better, knew they were better and fell prey to the pressure of knowing that the better team has to score.

“As the game progressed, we became more desperate. When you start a game dominating and you miss chances, you have the idea that you’re chasing the game because you want to win. I think no matter who you play against, if the chances come, send them.”

On Tuesday, Stimac promised that the best attacking players in his team would start. But as has been seen over the previous few months, this does not necessarily translate into goals or points or victories. But from here on out in these World Cup qualifiers, there will not be an easier three points for them to win than when they step out onto the pitch tomorrow.

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