Igor Stimac feels that India and Afghanistan share similarities ahead of the two teams' face-off in the 2022 FIFA World Cup and 2023 AFC (Asian Football Confederation) Asian Cup joint qualification tie at the Central Republican Stadium in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on Thursday.
"We both faced Qatar and we both played against Bangladesh, and I think both India and Afghanistan have similar qualities. I see the Afghanistan team as a strong and physical side with some of the players gaining experience in Europe. Of course, not the top leagues, but playing in Europe gives you an extra quality," said the coach of the Blue Tigers.
"They have composure, they have the stamina, and it's not going to be an easy game for us. We know how important the game is and we did as much as we could to rest our players because most of the players played last on the 10th before travelling. We are very happy that people back home in India are following us with lots of passion, they have a lot of expectations and we will do our best to make them proud," he added.
The former Croatia manager pointed out that his team has improved since the 2019 Asian Cup and talked about his vision of leading India to the 2026 World Cup.
"Since then (the Asian Cup), we have adopted a totally different approach to the football we play. Before I took over the team, India were playing with six players at the back, going for long balls and trying to attack with four players upfront. I was brought into position to change that and we are in the process of building up a new Indian team for the future and we are concentrating on the World Cup 2026. It's a long process and a difficult one," he stated.
Continuing his assessment, Stimac explained, "We have shown against Oman (2-1 loss), that we can play against a difficult team and it was a fantastic game. We went to Qatar (0-0) and kept a clean sheet. I think Afghanistan (losing 5-0) knows how difficult it is against the Asian champions.
"And our last game against Bangladesh (1-1) was not at that level of the first two but totally a different game because we were in a position to continuously attack a side who were playing with 10 players in front of their box. 74 per cent ball possession, 17 shots, some very good chances and I was happy about our plan execution but not happy to let Bangladesh two clear chances. That was the bad part of our game and we are working on resolving our issues."
Igor Stimac was pleased to have Pronay Halder back in the squad but will miss out on the services of Sandesh Jhingan and Amarjit Kiyam.
"India is still not a team who can replace important players immediately. We lost the most important man in our backline (Sandesh Jhingan) and one of the best central midfield players (Amarjit Kiyam) and it's not easy to replace such players. So we suffer a little bit with these injuries but now I am happy that Pronay (Halder) is back in the team," he said.
Speaking of facing lower-ranked teams such as Bangladesh and next opponents, Afghanistan, the Croat criticised drawing up expectations ahead of time.
"The most difficult games are those games when the people who are following you write down the points before that game starts. When you go to play against Qatar, there is nothing to lose. But when you go to play against Bangladesh, everybody has put three points on the table (for India) before the game started. Against Qatar and Oman, you know that you have to defend and counter-attack. Against Bangladesh, they counter-attack you.
"And it is not a club where you get training sessions with players everybody to develop a style of football. We get the players five days before a game. We can rest them, talk to them and analyse an opponent. That's all. We did not lose two points against Bangladesh but we won one point. We showed character, a fight and stamina to score a late equaliser. It was pressure on our young team to play in front of such a big crowd. We came back and it was not easy," he insisted.
Stimac went on to praise the way Afghanistan took stage against Bangladesh while expecting a tough challenge on Thursday.
"We respect Afghanistan. The game they played against Bangladesh was interesting to me. They showed composure throughout the 90 minutes. Stable game with a clear idea. They controlled the game and defended well during set-pieces. They have stamina and they’ll pose a tough challenge for us.
"Apart from the Afghanistan team which is our primary obstacle we have two other obstacles. We are coming from Delhi where it is 30 degrees (celsius), and here it is a bit colder. The artificial turf is another thing. But it will be the same for Afghanistan as well. So we cannot find excuses. We need to accept them and pass through them. We are concentrating more on what we need to do to fulfil our job," he concluded.