India’s stirring display against Qatar in their own backyard in Doha will live in the memory of football fans for a long time to come with the Blue Tigers becoming the first Asian side to avoid a defeat against the reigning continental champions in 2019.
That it came after India had squandered a one-goal lead against Oman before falling to a defeat at home in the previous game makes the performance against Qatar all the more impressive.
While India did have to ride their luck at times and the individual brilliance of Gurpreet Singh Sandhu to achieve the shutout against the Asian champions, the manner in which they approached the game at Doha despite missing the services of Sunil Chhetri and Ashique Kuruniyan was highly pleasing.
Not afraid to build from the back despite Qatar’s high press, India’s players won hearts with their fearless approach and head coach Igor Stimac has put down that vast improvement to installing a renewed sense of belief amongst the squad.
“It is all about belief. I made the players believe in their abilities,” the Croatian told Goal . "It is more about trusting yourself and your abilities rather than thinking about the opponent's.
“Qatar had everything to lose. We had nothing to lose. That is the mentality with which we prepared for the game,” he added.
One of the key takeaways in India’s stalemate with Qatar was the manner in which the entire XI defended as a single unit.
“It is all about the collective and having a united front. There are no individual stars in this team. Everyone knows their individual job and they performed it to perfection against Qatar,” Stimac explained.
These positive changes, especially the technical improvement in the gameplay, have not happened overnight for Stimac with the Croatian using the King’s Cup in Thailand and the Intercontinental Cup at home to gradually imprint his philosophy on the team.
The former Croatia head coach rung in the changes in both tournaments with several players being given a chance to impress in various matches. Stimac believes that the arrival of more technically gifted players has had a knock-on effect on the rest of the squad.
“I changed the personnel over time since my arrival by bringing in players like Sahal Abdul Samad, Rahul Bheke, Brandon Fernandes, Rowllin Borges, Anirudh Thapa, Amarjit Singh, Manvir Singh, Nikhil Poojary, Adil Khan, Narender Gahlot and others as well,” he stated.
“These players are good on the ball. The players who are good technically have had a rub-off effect on players who are not so good. That automatically elevated the levels of the whole team.”
The challenge now, Stimac feels, is now getting the new crop of players to get more consistent game time.
“These players have to start playing more consistently. Take someone like Manvir Singh for example, last year he played only around 200 minutes or so. That is not good enough and the only way he can improve is by playing more,” he said.
While improvement in the technical level is a big priority for Stimac, the head coach believes that smarter game management from India was crucial to them lasting the distance in Doha. The squad’s fitness levels had been criticised after the 1-2 defeat against Oman where they conceded two late goals at Guwahati with Stimac subsequently taking umbrage to the criticism,
The problem, the Croatian felt, was India’s lack of game awareness with players looking to play full throttle at every given opportunity.
“Effective running is highly crucial,” Stimac said.
“It is important to not go full pace in attack every time you get the ball. You need to be smarter with your game management and pick the important moments to fasten or slow down the game.
“You cannot be playing with full intensity for the entire 90 minutes. Learning smarter game management is a gradual process but I am confident we will be successful in our endeavours.”
Another significant change Stimac had heralded since his arrival in India is the added focus on fitness levels, particularly the body-fat percentage. India’s fitness levels had improved massively under previous coach Stephen Constantine but they have been taken to the next level since the arrival of the Croatian.
Stimac has been aided by highly rated fitness specialist and compatriot Luka Radman in this regard and the results are already starting to show.All these changes that Stimac has implemented came to the fore in the draw against Qatar but the Croatian left nothing to chance tactically as well.
“We did a complete tactical breakdown of the Qatar team. Their regular left-winger Akram Afif was missing so we knew their captain Hassan Al Haydos would play there,” he said.
“Al Haydos loves to cut in on his right foot so our plan for Rahul Bheke was to force him to go wide.
“It was similar at the other flank with Mandar Rao Dessai. Their right-winger is not so strong with his right-foot and most of the damage he causes is with his left. Hence, force him out wide too was the plan.
“Then there is their star striker Almoez Ali who is just so lethal and deadly in the box. Our plan was to starve him off possession inside the box and we were largely successful to that effect as you saw.”
Having made clear his vision for the senior team, the next step for Stimac is for India to streamline its coaching approach across all age-groups.
“I will be sitting down with the coaches of the various junior teams soon to have serious discussions. We all need to be on the same page as to what are the kind of players we want to produce for the senior team,” he said.
“It is very important for us to have the same vision and approach at all levels if we are to take giant strides in the long run.”