Didn’t come here to defend on edge of the box: Igor Stimac | Football News

Igor Stimac and Graham Arnold agreed on one thing. “We are excited that kick-off time is close,” said Stimac, India’s head coach. “Finally it is happening,” said his counterpart with Australia. Former national team players both, Stimac and Arnold are also the longest in their jobs in the Asian Cup. And this is the fifth finals for both teams.

India’s football coach Igor Stimac gestures during the men’s round of 16 football match between India and Saudi Arabia in the 2022 Asian Games(AFP)

Everything else points to Saturday’s Asian Cup opener as a contest between teams at vastly different levels. Australia, winners in 2015 who made the World Cup round-of-16 in 2022, have 19 of their 26 players based in Europe though there’s no one in the top five leagues. No one before or after Sunil Chhetri made the 2011 Asian Cup while at Kansas City Wizards (now Sporting Kansas City) has represented India in this competition having played outside the country. When they last met, in the 2011 finals, Australia won 4-0.

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Eighteenth in Asia, India are targeting the top 10 in the next four years, said Stimac. Australia, who have not conceded a goal in their last four games, are fourth. Since the giant-slaying run in the World Cup, Australia have lost 0-1 to England – “they caused lots of problems to England,” Stimac said at Friday’s press conference in Doha –0-2 to Argentina and held Mexico 2-2.

All three were ranked above Australia who are 25th in the world. Or 77 places above India. For all the credit Stimac’s team deserves for winning three tournaments in 2023, the Croat, who has been in charge since 2019, would be the first one to point out that they came at home after adequate preparation and without any major injuries. And that the Asian Cup is at a different level.

Even though 15 in his squad of 26 have 10 or fewer caps, striker Mat Leckie, whose goal against Denmark took Australia into the knockout round in the World Cup, is missing with a hamstring injury and the team is transitioning, Arnold said winning the tournament would be their target. “It is the only tournament we can win.”

For India, it would be about embracing the challenge, said Stimac. Two of them coming up on Saturday would be defending set-plays and dealing with crosses. India ended the year being iffy with the former. “Our reaction has been poor in clearing the second ball,” Stimac told HT on Thursday. The past 12 days have been spent working on that with help from Trevor Sinclair, the former England international and Stimac’s teammate at West Ham. But if India had done alright in defending corner-kicks earlier, it was because of the physical presence of Anwar Ali and Jeakson Singh both of whom are out with injuries.

Attacking corner-kicks and free-kicks for Australia would be Leicester City’s centre-back Harry Souttar, who had a breakout World Cup and who at 2m would be taller than Gurpreet Singh in India’s goal. At an average height of 177.35cm, India are the third shortest among 24 teams and below the tournament average of 179.8cm. Australia stand at 182.3 cm.

On an average, Australia put 25 to 30 quality crosses, Stimac said on Thursday. “The first point would be to try and stop distribution to the flanks. If that is missing, you need to stop the crosses. If that second point is not done by the book, you need to defend crosses and be organised on the second ball. Defensive organisation against such a strong team would be crucial.”

First among equals in that aspect would be the back four likely to comprise centre-backs Sandesh Jhingan, who has recovered from fever, and Rahul Bheke with Subhasish Bose and Nikhil Poojari as full backs. Suresh Wangjam, Lalengmawia Ralte (Apuiah) and Deepak Tangri could comprise the midfield with Lallinazuala Chhangte, skipper Sunil Chhetri and Manvir Singh in front.

The approach will be like in the home game against Qatar last November, which India lost 0-3, said Stimac. At Friday’s press conference, he said: “We didn’t come here to defend on the edge of the box.”

In a game that could feel like playing at home, given the number of expatriates in Doha, India can also draw hope from Australia. But for the penalty-saving heroics of Andrew Redmayne, an inspired extra-time substitution by Arnold who has been in charge since 2018, at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, also the venue for Saturday, against Peru a fifth straight World Cup finals looked unlikely. Yet, denied automatic qualification in a campaign where they drew with Oman and China, Australia rocked the World Cup.

The friendly against Bahrain and the World Cup qualifier against Palestine showed Australia can struggle to break down teams. Of course, everything has to break in the right manner for India to take something from the game but such things have happened. India did against Qatar in 2019, Iraq did in the 2007 Asian Cup and Australia in the last World Cup. So, what’s not to think that doubters will again be damned?

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