Stimac: Need to win against Bangladesh to preserve our dream
India face eastern neighbours Bangladesh in their third match of the 2022 FIFA World Cup and 2023 AFC Asian Cup joint second round Qualifiers at the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan in Kolkata on Tuesday. India are currently fourth in Group E with one point from two matches while Bangladesh are fifth with no points from their two outings. Both sides will be eyeing all three points from the fixture to keep their qualification ambitions alive. With the match being the first international match the Blue Tigers will be involved in at Kolkata in almost eight years, there’s an additional buzz amongst the fans surrounding the tie.
A day prior to the fixture, India head coach Igor Stimac and veteran striker Sunil Chhetri addressed the media. Speaking of the upcoming match, Stimac stated, "I am very happy to be in the City of Joy - the Mecca of Indian football. It's not just me, everyone is looking forward to the match. In terms of the match, there will be a lot of passion involved because we know what a match and the rivalry against Bangladesh means for India."
Delving further into the importance of the fixture in regards to the team’s long-term objectives, the Croat stated, "The Bangladesh match will be very different from the last two matches we played. Against Oman and Qatar, we were not the favourites. No one backed us to get positive results. But now, the pressure is on us. We are trying to release that and making sure everyone enjoys their time on the pitch. We are ready and our expectation is to win the game because winning will allow us a chance to keep dreaming and go to the matches in November with a positive mindset. I am confident that the boys will be in top form."
The Indian football team has gone through a visible transformation under Stimac. Asked about his assessment of the progress so far, he replied, "I am satisfied with the goals we have achieved in such a short time. We didn't have much time, but we did exceptionally well. I feel lucky that we found great young players - not only related to technical abilities but in respect to who they are. They are great humanbeings, great characters and they are led by great examples in the team. Such a great combination of youngsters and experience have given us a chance to keep dreaming."
Stimac, however, exercised caution against the favourites tag and remarked, "Being favourite on one day doesn't make a difference and we proved that in Qatar. It comes down to which team is ready to step up on the day. It's always 11vs11. That's the beauty of football. For us, it's about the teamwork and proving ourselves on a day to day basis. We need to analyse what I can do to help the team. If we keep working like this we will be ok."
With the Hero ISL set to start from October 20, Stimac also stated that even though his squad is beginning to take shape, the door was open for more talented players to come into the national squad based on their performances. "On my sheet, I have 40 players and the Hero ISL starts on 20th October. The door is open for anyone with an Indian passport. I have my eyes on the schedule. I have identified games where I will go personally to monitor players who are not on the list. Our aim is to qualify for the AFC Asian Cup continuously and the 2026 World Cup. We have identified players accordingly."
“I need to appreciate the Hero ISL coaches who are working on ball possession. I need to thank foreign players who come and play in India helping Indian players get better,” he added.
For India talisman Sunil Chhetri, the occasion will be a nostalgic one considering his long-standing history with the football-crazy city of Kolkata. Speaking about the same, Chhetri said, "It feels good to back in Kolkata. I haven't played a match for India in Kolkata yet, and so, no one in the squad has either. We were supposed to upload videos to urge the fans to come and support us but we didn't have to. We got a mail that the tickets were sold out. I am very excited. When you play in a jam-packed stadium, its a beautiful feeling but when its for your country, its more special. We will be looking to make the most out of it," Chhetri.
The 35-year-old missed India’s last match against Qatar due to an illness, but the team put forth a gritty stand to hold the reigning Asian champions in their own backyard. "Maybe we played so well because I was absent," he quipped. "This is one of the best changes in the team in the recent past. The importance of who plays is so less. Whoever does well in training plays. There's no focus on your past or reputation. It doesn't matter who plays, the team will play to the best of their ability. That is the best thing about this bunch," he noted.
“India doesn't need me to make a difference. I’m just one of the players in the team. There is no dependency on me by my teammates. We’re all one and we’re going to play like one. I'm a little bit luckier and a little bit more experienced - that's the difference, nothing else,” added India’s all-time highest goal scorer.
Bangladesh head coach Jamie Day said that the team is excited to take the field in front of a potentially packed stadium and it would be imperative for Bangladesh to silence the home crowd early on in the match. "We are looking forward to play in a packed stadium. I would love to be on the pitch myself, and can't wait to coach on the sidelines. We need to silence the crowd and for that, we need to start off playing well. I have told the players its a fantastic opportunity to showcase their skills and how much they have progressed," he said.
"With 65,000 or so people cheering India on, we cannot afford to go behind early on. We need to be defensively strong and stay in the game as long as possible," the Englishman added.
Captain of the Bangladesh team, Jamal Bhuiyan, meanwhile, picked out Chhetri as the main threat for them in the match and said, "I have played against Chhetri twice before and I think he scored three or so goals in these two matches. So, he is a great striker and will be obviously a big threat for us. India also has other good players but Chhetri will be the main man for India."