The Indian football team is entering the upcoming Asian Cup as ” rank outsiders” and its main goal is to go through to the third round of the 2026 World Cup Qualifiers, head coach Igor Stimac said on Sunday. Stimac was making his assessment based on the level of competition they are expected to face in a tough group comprising continental heavyweights Australia and the physically intimidating Uzbekistan. India are drawn in Group B with World Cup regulars Australia, strong central Asian side Uzbekistan and tricky Syria — all above Stimac’s team in the FIFA rankings — in the group stage of the Asian Cup.
“Obviously, we are rank outsiders in our group. Uzbekistan is one of the dark horses and a fantastic team, their players’ physicality could cause problems.
“Australia are playing at the highest level of football and we all know what they are capable of… they are regular at World Cups and will mostly clear the group stage there,” Stimac said.
India landed in Qatar’s capital on Saturday for the tournament.
And how does he plan to approach the matches? “This group is much stronger than the last Asian Cup. The most important thing for us is to have a good performance and ensure that we remain stable and in shape while playing. I am not putting any pressure on players about results.
“We need to find stability, we will try to play fearless football notwithstanding the teams we play against. I don’t mind the final results. Our final goal is to qualify for the third round of World Cup qualifiers.” While this will be India’s fifth appearance in the AFC Asian Cup, the Blue Tigers have never made it past the group stage after finishing runners-up in 1964, which was played in a round-robin format.
India will begin their campaign against Australia on January 13 followed by matches against Uzbekistan on January 18 and Syria on January 23.
The team will play a warm-up game on January 7 to see where it stands in terms of preparation before the big test.
“Keeping in mind that all the other teams are in Dubai for three weeks already, we are trying to settle down to the climatic conditions and adjust in a proper way in the short time given to us.” Injuries to some key players, such as Jeakson Singh, Glan Martins and Anwar Ali, have disturbed Stimac’s plans just before he was to pick his final squad of 26.
“Things changed dramatically for us with injuries in recent times. Anwar Ali, Ashique Kuruniyan, Glan Martins and Jeakson Singh…we are going to miss them a lot.
“It is not easy to replace Anwar as he is one of the best defenders in Asia. Jeakson was providing us stability in the build-up phase.
“But we don’t have time to think about those who are not with us. We will try to maximise the performance of those players who are with us here,” Stimac said.
Strong and well-built players like Anwar would have proven handy against teams such as Uzbekistan.
“It is not just about physicality, we also lost passing quality and passing ability with these three players,” said Stimac.
The 1998 World Cup semifinalist with Croatia added, “I was very happy to see Sahal (Abdul Samad) settle down at Mohun Bagan and Sandesh Jhingan is doing well at Goa. Now we all know how much Bengaluru FC have lost with the departure of Jhingan and how much Goa has benefitted.” But international football is a different ball game altogether, admitted Stimac.
“Pace of ISL is far below the pace of international football. So, when players arrive in national team camps we focus on sharpness, compactness and keeping stability and shape.” Stimac also spoke about the importance of doing well from set pieces, for which the team has hired the services of former West Ham and Manchester City player Trevor Sinclair.
“We have to work on how to defend our goal and then look to find gap. I am not really thinking about ball possession against the big teams.
“Trevor Sinclair has been brought in to help the team in set pieces. First, we have to work on how to stop conceding goals from set pieces, and then look to score from set pieces.
“Trevor is a guy who has got great experience. He has worked in development programmes and we needed a guy like him to help us prepare in such a short time.” Stimac said “no extra motivation” is needed for players to perform to the best of their abilities in a tournament of this magnitude.
“No extra motivation is needed here as this is a very big tournament.
“We are upgrading our fitness level and analysing our opponents in a proper way… how to stop them and what their patterns are.. how to approach these games.” Stimac also said his goalkeepers must remain confident of coming out if the need arises.
“We are going to need our goalkeepers to be at their best and also work on their self confidence. They need to be brave.”
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