Indian national football team is eyeing the most important fortnight in Igor Stimac’s reign as the head coach of the Blue Tigers. Currently, India has 3 points from their first 5 matches in the ongoing AFC qualifiers, and the upcoming three matches against reigning Asian champions Qatar, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan will be crucial for Stimac’s team to make it to the Asian Cup 2023.
The Croatian is confident of his side making it to the AFC Asian Cup 2023 and says that the team is ready to give it their all despite a very short preparation camp ahead of the crucial fixtures. He said:
“I am confident that we will be in the Asian Cup. I can promise you that we will give it everything. The boys will give each atom of energy in their bodies to answer all doubts on the pitch.”
Stimac further talked about how the Covid-19 pandemic is raging in India and emphasized that the players would do all in their ability to make the fans at home happy and satisfied with the Blue Tigers’ performances.
“They are very much aware of what’s happening in India. So many families are suffering right now. We have a chance to make the people of India happy with our performance. We need to take this opportunity and bring back a few smiles to the people’s faces.”
Stimac has picked a strong 28-men squad for the trip to Doha as skipper Sunil Chhetri has returned to the national team fold after missing the two friendlies in March along with key players Brandon Fernandes, Sahal Abdul Samad, Subhasish Bose, Rahul Bheke, Narender Gehlot, and Pronoy Halder named in the squad as well.
Let’s have a look at the five key players that could influence the results in Group E of AFC qualifiers for Stimac’s men.
#5 Gurpreet Singh Sandhu
Over the past couple of seasons, he has shown consistency in goal for Mumbai City helping them win the 2020-21 Indian Super League Shield and Cup as well. Dheeraj Singh’s rise to the top has been long-awaited and the youngster’s performances in the AFC Champions League will certainly propel him into the discussion for the Indian national team.
On the other hand, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu had a mediocre season marred by goalkeeping errors, and the constant change in formations and defenders ahead of him didn’t help the 29-year-old goalkeeper either.
Sandhu is a leader of defence, and his experience of having played at the top level for more than a decade will go a long way in reaffirming the fans of his credentials. The former Stabaek goalkeeper would need to produce top performances in upcoming qualifiers to retain his role of the first-choice goalkeeper for the Indian national team.
#4 Akash Mishra
The emergence of the young full-back in the 2020-21 Indian Super League season allowed him to make his way into the Indian team for a couple of friendlies in March. Mishra was part of both friendlies and was one of the bright spots despite the 6-0 loss to the UAE after a 1-1 draw against Oman.
The teenager played every minute in his debut ISL campaign and ranked second for highest number of tackles and interceptions with 80 and 55 to his name, respectively. The defensive solidity is paired by the 19-year old left-back’s willingness to surge forward and support the attacks by providing width down the left wing.
The Balrampur-born defender is ideal for the Indian playing XI for the upcoming qualifiers, with the defensive-minded Pritam Kotal and Rahul Bheke available as the only two options at right-back. The experienced Subhasish Bose had a great season with ATK Mohun Bagan and could stake a claim for the left-back position as well.
#3 Brandon Fernandes
Brandon Fernandes played less than 750 minutes in the entire ISL 2020-21 season, missing the crucial business end of the season due to a groin injury. After an injury-ravaged ISL season, the attacking midfielder enjoyed his debut in the AFC Champions League by starting five of the six matches for Goa in the space of 15 days.
The 26-year-old’s match fitness should be far better compared to the likes of Sahal Abdul Samad and Bipin Singh, who haven’t featured in a competitive match since the end of the ISL season in March.
Fernandes hasn’t really set the world on fire in the Indian jersey in his 7 appearances for the Blue Tigers thus far, but the much improved player would be looking to be the main creative force in the Indian line-up for the upcoming AFC qualifiers. After playing against the tight defence of Asian giants Persepolis and Al-Wahda, the Goan midfielder would feel at home playing against the likes of Qatar in their own home ground.
#2 Sunil Chhetri
After missing the friendlies in March due to a bout of Covid-19, Chhetri is back to lead the line for the Blue Tigers. ‘Captain Fantastic’ might bow out of the international stage after taking part in the 2023 AFC Cup and the Blue Tigers would do their all to ensure qualification for the tournament in the next fortnight.
The 36-year old forward had a dull season according to his standards but Chhetri ended up finishing as the joint top-scorer for Bengaluru in the 2020-21 ISL campaign. The veteran forward has onlly 1 goal in the current AFC qualifiers campaign and should be looking forward to increasing the tally against the likes of Afghanistan and Bangladesh scheduled after the Qatar fixture.
Chhetri currently has 72 goals in international football, second-most for an active player in international football and with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo playing in the Copa America and the Euros respectively over the summer, the Indian forward would be hopeful of increasing his own tally as well.
#1 Glan Martins
Many experts, pundits, and journalists would frown over the fact that the uncapped Glan Martins has been named at the top of the key players’ list but such has been the rise of the Goan midfielder over the last 18 months.
After spending the first half of the 2020-21 ISL season on the bench of ATK Mohun Bagan, the 26-year old switched to Goa in the winter transfer window and there was no looking back for the central midfielder as he filled in Lenny Rodrigues’ boots with ease offering a bit more going forward as well arguably.
Martins has earned a first call-up to the national team after showing his mettle throughout the group stage of Goa’s AFC Champions League campaign. After rubbing his shoulders with the world-class midfield of the best teams of the continent like Persepolis, Al-Wadha, and Al-Rayyan, the 26-year old is certainly ready to set the world alight in the Blue Tigers jersey.
Stimac has selected only one new face in the 28 players chosen for the trip to Qatar, and the national team coach heaped praise on the new inductee. He said,
“I followed Glan Martins since his days at Churchill Bros. Since then I have seen something– aggressiveness, reading of the game, and courage; that’s something we lack in our team.”