Friendlies crucial to preparations for AFC Asian Cup final round qualifiers: Stimac

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India’s men’s football team head coach Igor Stimac said on Tuesday that his boys were viewing the friendlies against Bahrain and Belarus later this month as extremely crucial to gauge where the side stands ahead of the AFC Asian Cup final round qualifiers in June.

The India players are currently in Pune preparing for the friendlies on March 23 and 26, respectively in Manama.

“We are happy that in such circumstances, we can get together again. We are looking ahead to the friendlies. The last two years haven’t been easy, and life has been hard. But this is no time to complain, and we are looking ahead,” Stimac said.

“We are playing Bahrain and Belarus, and they are better-ranked sides than us. But whatever the rankings are, you need to do it on the pitch. Bahrain will show us where we stand. We will give chances to some young players who have played well in the ISL (Indian Super League) this season to see how much we can use them for the qualifiers in June,” he added.

“We look to perform well in the forthcoming two matches. We need to make sure that we zero down on the best combination for the qualifiers in June,” said Stimac.

Goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu stressed the two friendly matches present a ‘great opportunity’.

“This is a great opportunity against good teams. We are not in any position to take things lightly in the June qualifiers — be it Cambodia, Afghanistan or Hong Kong,” he said.

Speaking on the non-availability of striker Sunil Chhetri, Gurpreet said, “We need to take it as a challenge. We need to learn to play when he isn’t there. We cannot be too dependent — this is a team sport after all. He has been phenomenal for us and surely, it’s a huge miss.”

Referring to the ongoing camp, Stimac said that the team is having special sessions with the goalkeepers.

“The goalkeepers have been inconsistent this season. I already spoke to Gurpreet and he is aware that the season has not gone well. But Gurpreet is one of the best goalkeepers in Asia, and I am confident of him, and all of them. We are already into the training process,” the coach said.

Stimac also made a mention of Roshan Singh and VP Suhair, who have impressed him. “Roshan has been very consistent and has been playing without fear. He has been making great crosses with inch-perfect precision. That’s something which we need. We need those wide players who are capable enough to cover the line,” he said.

“At the same time, VP Suhair has been extremely hard working. Individually, he is a responsible player, and both on and off the ball he has been brilliant. He is one of the players who falls back defensively, and someone who can also put the ball in the net,” the coach said.

“Someone who has also been wonderful this season is Sahal. He has got the creativity, that touch, and understands football.”

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