India scripted a remarkable moment in their history after securing a back-to-back qualification in the final rounds of the 2023 AFC Asian Cup for the first time ever. To top off their qualification, the Blue Tigers romped a thrilling 4-0 win in their final group stage game against Hong Kong at the Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata, on Tuesday.

Goals from Anwar Ali (2’), Sunil Chhetri (45’), Manvir Singh (85’), and substitute Ishan Pandita (90+5’) filled the wondrous atmosphere at the Salt Lake Stadium with euphoria as Igor Stimac’s men finished their campaign securing three wins out of three.

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Looking back at the final game of the AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers campaign, Hero ISL experts Anant Tyagi, Paul Masefield, Darren Caldeira, along with assistant coach of Kerala Blasters FC, Ishfaq Ahmed, discussed the Blue Tigers’ AFC Asian Cup qualification, key takeaways from the Hong Kong match, and a lot more while also being joined by on the Let’s Football Live Twitter Space.

Here are the excerpts from the discussion:

On India’s Asian Cup qualification

Ishfaq Ahmed: We had the momentum with us since it was a home match and honestly I feel that we are a better team. When you compare us to these South-east Asian teams, I think we are up there, we needed just that momentum to push ourselves further up, we have better players and it was evident yesterday and we could’ve in fact scored more. It’s a fantastic result for India, and for any nation if the national team is doing good, it’s nurturing football for the whole nation, our leagues, clubs, and everything else.

Darren Caldeira: Igor [Stimac] had the option of completely changing things around as we had already qualified before the match began, so he could’ve changed half the squad if he wanted to give opportunities to other players. He could’ve brought on the likes of Yasir [Mohammed] and also started Ishan Pandita, but he made the right decision. We were playing at home, won the first two games, and let’s not forget the pressure faced by Stimac while coming into these qualifiers. Everyone expected us to top the group and at the same time doubted us in terms of the last few results. And credit goes to Stimac for picking the right team in every match, he got the right balance.

Anant Tyagi: I don’t think that Stimac, at any point of time in the campaign, was looking to settle for anything less than a win. In fact, he made it very clear in the pre-match comments as well that they’re looking to win and finish on top of the group, and this was even before Palestine defeated the hapless Philippines. I was surprised to see him go with Udanta [Singh] and Ashique [Kuruniyan] instead of Liston [Colaco] and Manvir [Singh] for that matter. And it's great for the team because that’s the wealth of talent at his disposal. Collectively, both of these players have already played 60 games at their age. It’s a testament to Igor’s beliefs, ideas to bring on fresh legs. Brandon, Manvir, Liston, Pandita came on when they were already 2-0 up and the job was already done, another day and another coach would’ve sent in a Pritam [Kotal], Subhasish [Bose], Bheke [Rahul]. So big up to his strategy in a sense to trust his process.

On Igor Stimac’s style of football

Paul Masefield: When Igor says about having that time with the players, it’s all good and well, coming together the 2-3 weeks and trying to make something happen, doesn’t always work that way because you’re rushing. And he’s now having 6-7 weeks with them, you can see the ideology and see the method, you can see defensively he likes to keep it tight. What happens then, is that when they go through transition, the full-backs push themselves on with Suresh or Jeakson dropping in, playing the ball up the pitch, with the wingers causing all sorts of problems [for the opposition] in the wide positions along with Sunil [Chhetri] who’s always playing on the shoulder. There’ll be three, four, possibly five, different youngsters in this squad for the under-23s when they do go to the Asian Cup because we will see these players developing leaps and bounds in the Hero ISL. And Stimac is not afraid to pick them. If they can keep going and develop like that, Igor Stimac could be the right person to take India forward for the next two, three, or possibly four years.

Ishfaq Ahmed: I was happy that we saw one team playing together under Igor Stimac, fighting for each other after a long time. I saw Sunil Chhetri jumping outside when Ishan scored, and that is brilliant, and this is what we need as a team. And for me, this is one of the main pillars in football. You may have an average team but a team’s oneness and togetherness will take you very far. I must congratulate Igor for that, he got this team together and made them fight. The team that played Hong Kong was a disciplined team. That’s a big plus point from this side.

On the massive impact of fan support from the stands:

Anant Tyagi: The team had played 20 of 25 matches under Igor Stimac away from home before they even played these qualifiers. Even while playing under Covid guidelines, they still managed to get a limited number of fans away from home, against superior sides. I think because a lot of these players have now played under an environment where they’re almost fearless, they don’t have a fear DNA in them and that’s not being injected into them at this stage. They’ve played fearless football, and so far, they’ve had the experience of playing a domineering opposition. So, this will serve as a major boost to them when they play in the Asian Cup.