The night of June 6 at Salt Lake could be an epoch-making encounter, says Igor Stimac

KOLKATA: Igor Stimac is no stranger to cliffhangers. In his long and distinguished career, the classy centre-back of the nineties had experienced many such nights on the pitch, when football wasn’t a matter of life and death, but much more important than that.

Yet, the ever-smiling and affable Croat, with 40 years of top-tier football experience in his kitty, is truly excited as the countdown has begun in earnest for the compelling FIFA World Cup Qualifier between India and Kuwait on June 6. Four days ahead of the tie at the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan, Stimac predicted it could be an epoch-making encounter, “the most important match for India in three decades.”

India tried their luck in World Cup Qualifiers for the first time in 1985 and, since then, could never cross the first-round barrier, Stimac pointed out. “The game against Kuwait is going to be the most important match for India in the last three decades. India never could achieve the third round in the World Cup Qualifiers. Having the very opportunity to be in that position is an achievement by itself,” the Blue Tigers’ coach said.

Reaching Round 3 would be a double delight. A place in the third round would also ensure India’s direct qualification for the AFC Asian Cup 2027 in Saudi Arabia, a fact that makes the June 6 tie a momentous occasion. The top two teams from each group from the second round will head into the third round, where 18 nations will be split into three groups of six and play each other on a home-and-away basis.

“Reaching there (Round 3) will be another step in Indian football history,” said Stimac. “It will be an amazing thing to have the opportunity to play another 10 games against the best Asian teams and dream big about trying to reach the biggest stage of football.”

Asked how he is preparing his boys for the fateful night on June 6, Stimac said: “In the way we always do. We now have the opportunity to train and spend time together for a longer period to bring the intensity level up and achieve the needed level of international football.

“For such an important game, we need to do a few things; in regards to strength conditioning, in regards to understanding what it needs, in regards to how important this game is, and in regards to mental strength and self-confidence. So, we work on all aspects needed for our boys to be on top of their form in this game,” he said.

The coach said: “There are two key points for the preparations for this game. First, winning the game is crucial. And to reach that target, we need to be very clever. We need to understand that in the game, we require patience. If we don’t open the scoring in the first half an hour, we need to be intelligent and play quality football together with pace. All these aspects are very important and we have to prepare for them. We have to prepare everything, not only the starting eleven players, but also the five on the bench, who could enter the pitch as substitutes.”

In the last one year, India met Kuwait three times. It includes an unforgettable victory in a tiebreaker in the SAFF Championship final in Bangalore. It makes Stimac feel confident about a win in front of Yuba Bharati Krirangan’s packed stands.

“Each of those matches was very tough and I can clearly state that we controlled all those games in superb ways,” he said. “We dominated for the bigger parts in each one of these games. We were above them physically. But on other occasions, before the Kuwait games, we had many games that helped us reach that level.

“But it is a different game now because they are coming here when we didn’t have the opportunity to play games. No league is being played now, no club is available. But we did play two games between us to reach the intensity we required. And I need to tell you that the boys were superb in those two games. I am very happy with them; happy with everything that was done in the last three weeks,” said the Head coach.

Asked if he was missing anything that could have added to the value, Stimac laughed and said: “I don’t have the right to think about it. We have to focus on what we have. What we can do and what can be improved. In the final week, we are concentrating on set pieces, offensive tactics, and a few details regarding the shape, team composure, and speed of passing. That’s all.”

The coach informed that defender Mehtab Singh, who left the camp a couple of days ago because of personal reasons, will join back on Sunday.

“It’s a huge game. The careers of the boys can change with this game. I want them to enjoy and do their best in the game,” were Stimac’s parting words.

Also read: Football School of India announce trials for Young Talents

Also read: MFA Super League club Charkop FC to conduct open trials for upcoming Season

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