India men’s football team head coach Igor Stimac feels optimistic as they prepare to host the reigning AFC Asian Cup champions, Qatar, for their most challenging match of the 2026 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers second round at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar on Tuesday.

In September 2019, a gritty Indian defence survived waves of attacks to hold the Maroons to a goalless draw when they faced each other for the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers. In the reverse fixture which took place in 2021, they failed to secure a point but gave Qatar a hard time, losing narrowly to a scoreline of 1-0. This time, the Blue Tigers will be looking to create history, building on their momentum from their win over Kuwait on Thursday. 

As India look forward to qualifying for the third round of the World Cup Qualifiers for the first time, the Croatian tactician doesn’t want his men to get burdened by the pressure and wants them to enjoy the game.

“We have analysed Qatar from every angle and position and know very well what they are capable of in terms of speed and strength. Their defensive and offensive positions are immaculate, which they demonstrated against Afghanistan by scoring eight goals," he said at the pre-match press conference.

"They could well have scored eight more. It is going to be very difficult and I just want the boys to enjoy their game in the next match. The first and bigger part was accomplished by winning against Kuwait, now I want the boys not to take any pressure and show their quality against Qatar,” added Stimac. 

Keeping in mind that the top two teams from each group qualify for the next round, and India have already defeated their toughest competition for the second spot in the group, Kuwait, Stimac feels India needs to build on this opportunity.

He said, “It is very motivating as we defeated the best opponents for the second position. We have to be in the top two positions to go to the next round of the qualifiers so, this helps in our goal of reaching the next round. Qatar are one of the pre-tournament favourites from the group. We do not have high expectations but we know we have a chance and we have to grab that with both hands.”

The 56-year-old believes his team is full of confidence and can take on any opponent. “I would say that we were never short of self-confidence. But each win boosts your self-confidence. We showed that we had high self-confidence in the King's Cup and Merdeka Cup. We have worked on the change of mindset over the last few years. Now our boys believe that they can beat anyone,” he shared. 

Addressing the reason behind this confidence, the head coach added, “When you play high-level games consecutively without losing, facing Kyrgyzstan, Kuwait three times, Lebanon twice, Iraq and you don't lose matches and keep clean sheets, it's quite evident that you are consistent.”

The Blue Tigers would be without key players such as Anwar Ali, Ashique Kuruniyan, and Jeakson Singh. Stimac feels that the pool for the national team is quite good and helped them find the right replacements, as demonstrated against Kuwait.

He stated, “Our main worry was the impact on the quality of the starting XI owing to the injuries. Losing the likes of Anwar (Ali), Ashique (Kuruniyan) and Jeakson (Singh) was a big blow for us as they were the young players who brought energy and quality to this side. But we were able to get over that crisis against Kuwait by sheer hard work and also by having a good pool of players for the national team that helped us find the right replacements.”

Sharing the mindset with which his team will be approaching the fixture, Stimac said, “It's a game, where there is nothing to lose for us but a lot to win for. So let's go for it all out. We cannot control the external factors. We can only control our performances at the individual level and as a team. The only thing for us to do is to give our best for 90 minutes when the first whistle sounds."