New Delhi, Oct 9 (IANS) Mandar Rao Desai is one of many footballers who have earned maiden call-ups to the national squad since Croatian Igor Stimac took over as India’s coach in May this year.
Mandar has played as a left full back — a position that he started playing in only in the preceding Indian Super League season and one which seems to have taken his professional career to the next level.
He had previously played in the more advanced position of left winger. It was FC Goa coach Sergio Lobera’s idea to make him play in the left back position and Mandar took to it like duck to water.
He was an integral part of the squad as FC Goa dominated the league stage last season and had played a major role in keeping out the mighty Qatar as India held them to a draw in their own backyard in their 2020 FIFA World Cup qualifier match in September.
Mandar told IANS that Lobera was pretty happy with the way he had played in that match when he joined FC Goa for the pre-season camp earlier this month.
“When I joined the team, he was really happy. I played as a left back which is a position that he put me in first. When I came back for the camp, he was really happy that I was able to contribute to the national team from that position,” he said.
He may have been playing as a left back only for the past year-and-a-half in a professional career that started in 2013, but Mandar is comfortable as both Stimac and Lobera seem to be happy with what he has been doing there. The 27-year-old said that both the coaches share a similar philosophy.
“The style of play that the national coach wants is the same as in Goa. He wants us to keep the ball and build up from the back… He wants us to wait for the right moment to attack, instead of trying to do that all the time. Obviously, if I get a chance to go ahead and cross the ball or dribble, I can do it, depending on the situation of the game,” he said.
“Stimac wants me to do the same things that I do while playing for FC Goa. Basically, he wants me to help the team in the build up,” he added.
Helping with the build-up is something he was tasked with even as a winger. Full backs may help a lot upfront, but they are considered part of the defensive line-up and that has been the main difference for Mandar.
“I have always played upfront as a winger, so my job was to help the team with the attack. But now I have to help with the defence first and then help with the attack,” he said.
Mandar is expected to be a part of the India team which will take on Bangladesh in their next World Cup qualifier to be held at the colossal Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata on October 15. After the result against Qatar, India are in a good space and can expect considerable help from the crowd in Kolkata.
Mandar feels the two matches which India have played so far against superior opponents like Oman and Qatar are all part of the learning curve that the team has to inevitably go through if they are to start competing at a higher level.
“Playing against big teams like Qatar and Oman helps us improve. All the players should learn from these games,” he said.
After the Bangladesh match, India’s next World Cup qualifier will be against Afghanistan on November 14, by which time FC Goa would have played four matches in the 2019/20 season of the ISL.
Mandar feels the players will be in a better position to play those matches than against Oman and Qatar as they will have a few games under their belt by then.
Centre back Sandesh Jhingan had said before the match against Oman that lack of game time before big games reduced India’s chances.
“All the players would have played some games in ISL and so they would be in a better shape in November. Back then (before the match aginst Oman), we did not have any games when we played in the national team but now we will be better prepared,” he said.
2018/19 was a bittersweet season for FC Goa. They were dominant for much of the group stages but were beaten to the top spot by Bengaluru FC. They then reached the final and were beaten to the trophy by Bengaluru FC again.
It was a brilliant season for Mandar on a personal level though. Apart from playing in a position that finally got him a national call-up, he also captained the team last season.
“We reached the final and it involved a lot of hard work from everyone. Our main aim was to maintain our style of play and play good football throughout the season. So I will certainly say that last season was the best one for me,” he said.
Mandar said that FC Goa will look to remain at the top of the table as long as possible throughout the group stages of the upcoming ISL, despite the fact that the real challenge comes only after that.
“Remaining at the top of the table is better because when you start winning games early on, it is always a good start and one can continue with that momentum,” he said.
FC Goa’s first match in ISL will be against two-time champions Chennaiyin FC on October 24 at home.