National football team coach Igor Stimac on Monday said India’s international friendly against Belarus next week is on “as of now” though the AIFF is in constant touch with FIFA about “possible sanctions” against the European country which has supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. All India Football Federation (AIFF) officials have said that India was trying to avoid playing against Belarus on March 26 in Manama, Bahrain amid a global sporting boycott of Russia and Belarus.
The world football body FIFA has suspended Russia but has not announced any such measure for Belarus as yet.
“It is regular. We are going to Bahrain to face them (Bahrain). Bahrain is hosting these games. So, as of now the game is on,” Stimac said during a virtual press conference, when asked about the status of the match against Belarus.
“We are in daily touch with the FIFA about everything, what is going on in Ukraine and about possible sanctions (on Belarus) but as far as we are concerned, the game is on.” India, without talismanic skipper Sunil Chhetri who is out due to an injury, will play against hosts Bahrain on March 23 before taking on Belarus match three days later.
These two international friendly matches are a part of India’s preparation for the Asian Cup final-round qualifiers to be held in Kolkata in June. India will play Hong Kong, Afghanistan and Cambodia at the Salt Lake Stadium from June 8 to 14 in Group D matches.
“We are favourites in the group, we are hosting the group and there is nothing we should complain about. But we should earn it on the pitch,” Stimac said when asked about the Asian Cup qualifiers.
“The other three teams will also fight for qualification, we cannot take anyone easy. We should not look at the rankings of the teams. We should earn it on the pitch and that is how we are going to prepare.” The winners of the six groups and five best second placed teams across groups will make it to the Asian Cup in China in 2023. The matches of the six groups will be held in different countries.
He added that India will play at least four more international friendly matches before the Asian Cup final round qualifiers.
Stimac said he is looking forward to test various combinations during the two international friendly matches in Manama to prepare for different scenarios during the Asian Cup qualifiers in June.
“We are going to prepare various combinations. As a contender for a first place in the group, we need to think about playing attacking football, playing with more players forward, risking more.” The head coach said he will give opportunities to the new players in the two matches but cautioned against jumping guns by declaring ISL performers as quality players at international stage.
“The pace of ISL is far below the pace international football. Sometimes we are impressed with some players in ISL, but when they come to international matches there is nothing they can do. We have to be quite sure about their quality at the international matches,” the Croat said.
“I want to look at some new faces. It is important for me to find out how much they can do at international stage. I am giving every player certain minute on the pitch and see their capability.
“The two matches (against Bahrain and Belarus) will show where his team is at the moment. We have chosen the opponents very carefully, they are better-ranked sides though I said rankings do not matter.” He mentioned Roshan Singh and VP Suhair as the young players to watch out for, while also describing Sahal Abdul Samad as one of his favourite players.
“Roshan has been consistent throughout the season, playing left or right, both flanks, making great crosses, assisting a lot, his crosses are with the eyes, always finding the players inside the box and creating opportunities. That is what we need, especially as we are the favourites in our group in Asian Cup qualifiers.” Stimac also informed that after the match against Bahrain, three Mumbai City FC players will leave the team as the ISL side will have to prepare for the AFC Champions League.
He said in the absence of Chhetri, goalkeeper Gupreet Singh Sandhu and defender Sandesh Jhinghan will wear the captain’s armband.
Regarding the ongoing ISL, Stimac said he has seen some of the most spectacular goals since the start of the league and which can be compared to the level of Premier League.
He also said that most of the ISL goalkeepers, except for Prabhsukhan Gill, have had a “nightmare” season, making “unnecessary mistakes” and conceding “funny” goals though he said it was part of football.
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