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Central defence, load off Chettri Stimac’s likely priorities

“As a senior player, I should have done something, maybe yelled at the boys to not just lump the ball because at this level you simply can’t do that,” Chhetri had told this paper from UAE on January 15, one day after elimination.

football Updated: Jun 05, 2019 10:37 IST
Dhiman Sarkar
Dhiman Sarkar
Kolkata
Sunil Chhetri,Igor Stimac
File Photo of India head coach Igor Stimac(Getty Images)

Formations can be fluid, and results can go either way, but the real test for Igor Stimac, who debuts as India head coach on Wednesday against Curacao at the Chang Arena in Buriram, Thailand, will be whether he can instill belief in the team. Belief that when a draw is needed, India will look for a win. Belief that what they did against Thailand in the Asian Cup in January and how they started against the UAE can be replicated in the 2022 World Cup qualifying cycle that starts in September.

India produced a second-half blitz that blew away Thailand. After the 4-1 win, they began in the same vein against the UAE and with a bit of luck, Ashique Kuruniyan and Sunil Chhetri could have put India 2-0 up by the 22nd minute.

But as the prospect of a pre-quarter final berth brightened, India, needing a draw against Bahrain, tried to batten down and lost to a second-half injury-time penalty. “As a senior player, I should have done something, maybe yelled at the boys to not just lump the ball because at this level you simply can’t do that,” Chhetri had told this paper from UAE on January 15, one day after elimination.

What works in Stimac’s favour is that barring Chhetri, who has got better with time, he has a young squad --- India’s average age in the Asian Cup was 25 --- that is not thin on experience. His predecessor Stephen Constantine didn’t have that, leading to the Anglo-Cypriot giving 47 players debuts between 2015 and the Asian Cup.

Stimac will also need to find a replacement for the retired Anas Edathodika who formed a settled central defensive firm with Sandesh Jhingan. The 23-man King’s Cup squad is overloaded with midfielders meaning Stimac could look at a back three. It could also mean Rahul Bheke, who started as a full back at East Bengal but was often used at the heart of the defence at Bengaluru FC, may partner Jhingan.

And he will have to look for someone apart from Chettri to score regularly. Especially because the jury is out on how well Kuruniyan and Jeje Lalpekhlua return from injury as it is on the consistency of Balwant Singh, Manvir Singh and Farukh Choudhary.

It was Stimac’s deep-dive into football in India that got him the job. So it is possible the Croat would know how India began under Bob Houghton, in 2006. They lost 0-3 to Saudi Arabia but till NS Manju erred at the back and even after that India had not tried to be content with an honorable defeat. Stimac will have to get India to win more moments and then matches against higher-ranked teams.

First Published: Jun 05, 2019 10:24 IST