Indian football team head coach Igor Stimac expressed his dismay as his side suffered a 2-0 defeat against Australia in the opening match of Group B in the AFC Asian Cup 2023 at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Qatar on Saturday.

Despite the valiant efforts and resolute first-half performance of India, Australia secured a hard-fought 2-0 victory, with Jackson Ervine and Jordan Bos finding the back of the net, marking the beginning of the Socceroos' AFC Asian Cup journey with all three points. The Blue Tigers, however, fought toe to toe against the heavily-ranked Australia, showcasing character and indomitable spirit.

Anticipating a formidable challenge from Australia due to their physical strength and prior experience, Stimac expressed delight with the overall performance of his players despite the challenging result in their opening AFC Asian Cup game.

“We expected a very difficult match for us with the physicality of Australia and suffering from the corners that were coming, especially from the right side. But overall, there is positivity with regards to the performance. I’m not so happy with the result at the end because both goals came out of sloppy reactions. These goals didn’t come out of Australia’s brilliant display or action; it came just because of our irresponsibility at certain times,” Stimac conveyed during the post-match press conference.

Australia dominated the game with over 70 percent possession, winning numerous set-pieces, and registering an impressive 28 shots against the Blue Tigers. Despite their efforts, they could only manage to score two goals, both in the second half. Stimac expressed contentment with his team's defensive display in the first half but acknowledged the need for improvement going by their second-half performance.

“I’m happy as a coach to hold on to Australia in the first half in a goalless draw. There was only one clear chance during the first 45 minutes, and this chance was on our side, so we couldn’t open the score. But the second half was not good,” he commented.

“We couldn’t get out of that zone where we were just not capable of making that second pass and going over the half-line, on which we have been working really hard. These actions were missing there. Especially the experience of Australian players was holding back this situation because they were better game readers and quicker in their reactions, especially when dealing with second balls,” he continued.

Igor Stimac commended the performance of 24-year-old defensive midfielder, Deepak Tangri, who marked his debut for India. Operating from the centre of the park, showcased a robust physical presence. His adeptness in successful tackles and sharp interceptions was instrumental as he formed a solid partnership with Lalengmawia Ralte and Suresh Singh Wangjam in the midfield. This collaboration effectively contributed to nullifying opposition attacks.

“Deepak Tangri was brilliant in the training sessions and the most confident midfielder we have at the moment in passing, taking action, responsibility, and attitude. Everything was spot on, and that’s why he earned his position in the first 11,” Stimac praised.

“We started the game with one number six and two number eights instead of one number ten. That was the only way we could handle Craig Goodwin and MeConnor Metcalfe getting into the gaps and trying to receive the balls in these dangerous positions,” he explained while sharing his thoughts of using Ralte, Wangjam, and Tangri together.

India faced the absence of key players such as Anwar Ali, Jeakson Singh, and Ashique Kuruniyan, all sidelined due to injuries and unavailable for the tournament. Additionally, midfielder Sahal Abdul Samad, initially part of Stimac’s 26-man squad for the AFC Asian Cup, was excluded from the matchday squad. Currently on the path to full recovery after sustaining an injury while playing for Mohun Bagan SG, Sahal is anticipated to make a comeback, and could potentially feature either against Uzbekistan or Syria.

Stimac reiterated the impact of missing these crucial players in such a significant event. Their absence was acknowledged as a factor that could have provided the team with a different dynamic, potentially offering more control over the match.

Speaking in context, Stimac said, “They are technically good. They would help us in holding on to the ball, passing, keeping possession, and providing key passes, especially with Sahal Abdul Samad.”

“But it’s a great experience for our boys. And prior to the game, in the dressing room, all that was mentioned was that we needed to play for our supporters. We needed to hold on to Australia for as long as possible. Our gameplan was to hold on until 60 minutes and then go for it,” he signed off.