Fierce competitive spirit will override camaraderie between rival coaches when India take on Lebanon in the final of the Intercontinental Cup football tournament in Bhubaneswar on Sunday. India chief coach Igor Stimac and his opposite number Aleksandar Ilic have been long-time friends ever since they were teammates at Spanish club Cádiz CF back in 1994 and there is plenty of mutual respect between the two. But Stimac’s stance on the eve of the summit clash indicated not an inch would be given after two clear goal-scoring opportunities went abegging for India in their previous outing against Lebanon on Thursday.
Anirudh Thapa missed a sitter in the fourth minute and striker Sunil Chhetri, after receiving a perfect delivery from the central midfielder, failed to find the back of the net.
Going by the Croatian coach’s strategy to make wholesome chances in all three games so far — against Mongolia, Vanuatu and Lebanon — he could spring a surprise in the title clash as well.
But with the stakes too high, it’s unlikely he would veer too far away from his time-tested combination, with India on the cusp of regaining the Intercontinental Cup after lifting it in the inaugural edition in 2018, when they beat Kenya 2-0 in Mumbai.
After the opening game against Mongolia, which India won 2-0, Stimac made nine changes to the line-up which defeated Vanuatu riding on Chhetri’s goal.
He made 10 more changes against Lebanon, which included benching star goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Chhetri in a goalless draw.
Defender Sandesh Jhingan, who wore the captain’s armband in Chhetri’s absence against Lebanon, has been the only constant in all three games, indicating the kind of faith Stimac has in the tall player and the India backline.
The rock-solid backline hasn’t disappointed the coach either, racking up six straight clean sheets at home.
The one change that caught everyone by surprise was Chhetri’s name missing from the starting lineup against Lebanon. But Ashique Kuruniyan, who had to be deployed at the centre-forward position in the star striker’s absence, managed to impress Stimac. So did Udanta Singh, who was shifted to the left wing.
Stimac, when asked about how his team will approach the game on Sunday, said he wouldn’t want to change much in terms of tactics from how India played on Thursday.
“Besides not scoring (in the previous game), I don’t think we did anything wrong. I don’t think we should change many things. We need lots of speed, we need players with lots of aggressiveness and energy, who are ready to respond to the physical game which Lebanon plays,” said Stimac.
Stimac, who was a part of the 1998 Croatian team that finished third at France ’98, emphasised the importance of remaining calm and composed in front of the goal.
“The instruction is always same for our players when they are in front of the goal; keep calm and composed and keep your eye on the ball; make sure you hit the goal, you don’t miss it. But it’s still not happening.” Pointing out injuries to key players in the tournament, Stimac said the absence of Ishan Pandita due to a thigh injury was a big setback.
The 25-year-old did not play against Vanuatu, which left the hosts with only two recognised strikers in the side — Chhetri and Rahim Ali.
“I have to say that we had trouble with Pandita. I had lots of expectations from him. He pulled a muscle and we didn’t want to risk him. He could’ve been a great asset for us in that sense of scoring, maybe, coming on in the last-30 minutes or even starting the game,” said Stimac.
“Ashique (Kuruniyan) too had an unknown situation with his ankle swelling and and we didn’t want to risk him (playing the full 90 minutes).” The Indian coach also threw his support firmly behind young striker Rahim Ali, who has been criticised for not scoring goals in the tournament.
“What I’m really sorry about is that I see, I hear from public opinion that people (are) getting angry with Rahim Ali. I need to tell you something, if we want our strikers to rise up we need to support them when they are getting a chance,” Stimac said.
“Rahim made the perfect one-touch back pass… an unbelievable run between the centre-backs where he put himself in a brilliant position to score the goal. Be supportive to these boys, don’t accuse them and don’t judge them,” he said.
Stimac said that against a side like Lebanon, getting four opportunities to score was no mean achievement.
“Against Lebanon, we had four clear opportunities (on Thursday). To create those four opportunities against Lebanon is not easy. I appreciate what the boys are doing.” India had finished top of the standings at the end of the group stage with seven points and no goals conceded, registering wins over Mongolia (2-0) and Vanuatu (1-0), and a draw with Lebanon (0-0). Lebanon were also held goalless by Mongolia after beating Vanuatu 3-1 in their opening game.
The match starts at 7:30pm on Sunday.
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