Impressed by Hero ISL 2020-21 on many counts, Stimac now looking forward to the grand finale between ‘similar teams’

The 2020-21 Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) is now just one match away from finding out its winner as Mumbai City FC and ATK Mohun Bagan lock horns in the grand finale at the Fatorda Stadium on Saturday. Whichever team wins, it will be a brand-new winner for the Hero ISL. Ahead of the match, India national coach Igor Stimac, who recently announced a 35-member preliminary squad for international friendlies against Oman and the United Arab Emirates, featured on ‘Let’s Football Live’ with host Anant Tyagi and shared his thoughts on a variety of topics related to the ongoing Hero ISL season and the grand finale itself. Here are some excerpts.

You said recently it’s the best Hero ISL season ever. Why you think so?

I feel that I'm 100% right when I say something like this [2020-21 being the best Hero ISL season] because this was the most difficult season for all the players and the stakeholders involved due to the COVID-19 situation. First, how to organize it, how to survive, how to escape from many injuries. This was the first time that our players were facing the problem of playing many games in such a short time, because every three or four days there was another game coming up and they all survived. We watched wonderful goals, great actions, open football most of the time, and we could enjoy it. I need to say once again, thank you for making my life easier here and making it better.

Were there any tactical improvements you noticed this season?

I'm quite happy with what I've seen this season, especially with Hyderabad FC, which was the best surprise of this Hero ISL season. I felt sorry at the end for Manuel Marquez and his boys who worked very hard, who played most of the games with only three foreign players on the pitch and in the starting line-up, which proved and showed us that we are right in saying that Indian and homegrown players deserve more chances and more space for their development.

Overall, it was a great season. Many new players emerged. Many new faces… It’s giving us more choices at the end. Now, the question in front of us now is: are they capable of competing at the international level? That's one question we need to answer very soon. And precisely I've been following the work of these players, to see how good they can be facing Oman and the United Arab Emirates which are good sides in Asia.

Indian players appeared to be taking charge this season instead of playing second fiddle. You agree?

That's been the case this season. More Indian players have emerged for these final positions, but not as many as we would like to see. We are still facing the same problems. Not seeing a single Indian player as a centre forward in the starting line-up. The best two, Manvir Singh and Sunil Chettri, played on the wide position most of the season.

Sunil was lucky after his first coach left this season, to have Mr [Naushad] Moosa there who somehow changed the mindset of the team and formation, which gave an opportunity to Sunil and Udanta [Singh] to play as the two forward players. He changed the team dramatically, and also put some young, fresh faces in the middle of the pitch which was necessary for Bengaluru FC to revitalise their game and their energy on the field. Congratulations to Mr Moosa on doing so.

How important is Indian assistant coaches' role in helping foreign coaches?

The best example is Khalid [Jamil] of NorthEast United FC. They had a coach who started the season really well. NorthEast United FC is a Hero ISL team with probably one of the lowest budgets. They are not big spenders. But then, once again, they showed what's possible when you have someone who understands the players. How to train them, how to manage them and how to put them in the proper positions, especially how to select them. Khalid shows that he has a great eye for selection of the players. He has a great understanding of their best position in the team. He did everything possible to bring this team so close to the final. Congratulations to everyone involved.

Thoughts on the second leg of the semifinal between FC Goa and Mumbai City FC…

That was an amazing game. Both coaches changed their goalkeepers before the penalty shootout. I was sorry for Amrinder Singh to see him not happy for that change but at the end both substitute goalkeepers showed their good knowledge about how to stop the penalties. It was very interesting. I was only worried because when it comes to such a stage at the end of the season, I was just worried when the extra time was coming and then I started asking questions to myself: was it really needed to have a second semi-final game or extra-time involved when there is no crowd? There is no time for so many games and the players are already exhausted and sick of the bubble but they were fantastic. All credit to them, an entertaining game.

Any players who caught your eye particularly? Chinglensana Singh, Ishan Pandita…

Not many to be honest because most of the players who emerged as the new faces in the Hero ISL, they've been followed by my staff and myself personally through Indian Arrows program and also most of them were part of the U-17 World Cup. So, if I need to mention a few then I will go with Chinglensana Singh, who never got his chance with FC Goa. The way he played, the composure that he showed, the calmness with the ball and accuracy with the passing and positioning play. That was something which made me really happy because you know how much we struggle in this position.

If I need to go for another one. It's Ishan Pandita, because I cannot say that I'm surprised with Manvir Singh, [Lallianzuala] Chhangte, or Liston [Colaco], because I saw them last season, I can see what they are capable of. But Ishan Pandita is a big surprise for me because I didn't have it in my notes. He showed up here after spending years abroad with his family fighting for his football. He gets less than 90 minutes, and he scores four goals. But most of all, when he comes the first time on the pitch and scores his first one. Then in the next game three minutes on the pitch he scores again and then he repeats.

What I need to check now is if he is capable of doing this for the national team. You know that this is going to happen very soon. He deserves his chance because we are so weak in these positions. Not weak in players quality; we have Sunil there, we have Manvir there. Our two first options, but we need more players emerging for these positions and definitely Ishan is defined as a centre forward, and we're going to give him a chance to prove himself on the international level.

Your thoughts on VP Suhair…

He scored some very crucial goals for NorthEast United FC, a hard-working player. He's in my book and he will be one of the players who will be getting his chance to prove himself in the camp in April.

As I'm telling you now, this is not a proper camp. This is just a seven-day preparation before two friendly games. So, I was trying to adjust the list of the players who could be competitive enough to play against Oman and the United Arab Emirates. So I need physically strong players.

Most of these players as you can see are from the four clubs involved in the semi-finals, which is normal and justified, but there are also some of them which were not involved in the semi-finals. But, as far as I can see, they're the best choice to face strong opponents like Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

Has the national coaching staff been in touch with some of these players, monitoring their progress and trying to guide them?

We didn't spend a single day without consulting the players, talking to them. I had many conversations with different Hero ISL coaches. We were following their injuries status and also, I watched every single game. As for now we have over 100 players involved in the Hero ISL, some of them with less minutes on the pitch. Half of them with good minutes on the pitch. 46 or 47 players played more than 17 games this season, which is very good. Hopefully, next season when we get the chance to start what we were planning to do this year, to start the season of eight months involving, once again, Hero Super Cup as a competition and the Durand Cup also. It's going to be very, very different and that's the way we need to follow.

What kind of battle are you expecting in the 2020-21 Hero ISL final?

It's really difficult to give a prediction. If we look back, we will not get an answer. I think that they are very similar in terms of quality. They both have great foreign recruits. It depends on who is going to take charge at the beginning of the game. Who's going to come out and say, ‘Okay, I'll take that ball. I will put you under pressure’. What is going to be the last tactical point of each coach? Mumbai City FC haven't played any different from the very start of the season so I expect them to come out be patient, take control of the game or try to take control of the game, but I would also like to see ATK Mohun Bagan going out and trying to do the same because they can do that.

Your Comments