World & Asian Cup qualifiers: Litmus test for India, survival battle for coach Stimac

There’s a hint of irony as Igor Stimac returns with his team to the site of their biggest achievement together.

In September 2019, Doha’s modest Jassim bin Hamad Stadium was where India, in Stimac’s words, started to ‘dream’ big when they stole a point from Asian champions Qatar in a World Cup qualifier. But on the eve of their ‘return’ leg, Stimac’s dream has turned into a nightmare. All India Football Federation (AIFF), for all practical purposes, has passed a motion of no confidence against the Croat after they extended his contract as national coach by just three months; a not-so-subtle hint that they are not entirely convinced with the results.

Now, as qualifying for the 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asian Cup resumes on Thursday, India’s three matches in the next 12 days against Qatar, Bangladesh and Afghanistan will decide Stimac’s future at the helm of the national team, which is still winless and placed fourth among five teams in Group E.

The situation did not look so ominous that September evening when, banking solely on goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s heroics, India eked out one of their most famous results of this century. But a lot has changed since then. And the pandemic is only partly responsible for it. Stimac had inherited an Indian side that was on an upswing and forging an identity of its own after years of soulless football. The Qatar match was the culmination of a string of eye-catching performances against reputed Asian teams, including China, UAE and Thailand. But in the 12 matches under Stimac, the counter-attacking Indian team that exploited the blistering pace of its wingers has turned into a bumbling unit that looks unsettled and clueless.

After peaking with the draw against Qatar, India haven’t been able to arrest the slide. It required last-minute goals from Adil Khan and Len Doungel to eke out face-saving draws against lower-ranked Bangladesh and Afghanistan respectively. By the time the team travelled to Muscat in November 2019 for the return leg against Oman, the situation got so bad that India could not even get a sight of their opponent’s goal while the defenders created more scoring chances for Oman than the Omani players did for themselves.

The pandemic, and the consequent 16-month gap between matches, further exasperated Stimac and his players, who succumbed to a morale-sapping 6-0 defeat to the UAE in a friendly in March. Playmaker Anirudh Thapa did not read too much into that result, insisting that Stimac had tried 11 new players in the two March friendlies and has handed debuts to 19 players since taking charge in May 2019.

But India’s woes began much before the pandemic hit. India have been resolute while defending in most matches, but often looked unsure while going forward. It did not help that Udanta Singh, whose pace on the wings and telepathic understanding with Sunil Chhetri was critical to India’s counterattacks, has dramatically lost form. Sahal Abdul Samad, who at one point looked like the team’s creative outlet in midfield, too has endured a tough season.

The loss of form of attacking players meant that India’s goal-scoring avenues dried up and Stimac has not found a solution for it. Under him, India has averaged less than one goal per game – just 11 in 12 matches; at times because of questionable selections and on some occasions, due to lack of composure shown by the attackers. In desperation, Stimac constantly tinkered with his playing 11 and has not chosen the same team for back-to-back matches. With his job on the line, he is likely to fall back on tried and tested players against Qatar on Thursday. FC Goa’s Glan Martins is the only new face among the 28 players in Doha.

A key figure in Goa’s dream-like Asian Champions League campaign, Martins is set to make his international debut.

India, and Indian teams like FC Goa, have shown a tendency to punch above their weight in the last couple of years. Three back-to-back matches starting Thursday after two months of inaction and tough quarantine conditions in Doha is hardly an ideal scenario.

But it will not be so straightforward, as Sandhu confessed in an interview with the AIFF. “The situation was different then (September 2019). The situation is different now,” the goalkeeper, who made 11 saves during India’s previous match against Qatar, said.

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