India have been in tremendous form in 2023, and the past month has been a joyous one for Indian football with two back-to-back titles, during which they remained unbeaten against the likes of Kuwait and Lebanon.

With Kuwait and Lebanon, the level of competition in the tournament was higher, and the Blue Tigers faced a challenging task. However, they not only emerged as winners in both competitions but also showcased their dominance over their opponents.

The Blue Tigers outperformed both Lebanon and Kuwait in nail-biting penalty shootouts in the SAFF Championship 2023 semi-final and final to clinch the trophy for a record nine times. India was the better side on both occasions and played with the same intensity throughout the game.

“Mindset has changed and they can play with intensity for 120 minutes. These are good signs,” Indian head coach Igor Stimac said in an interaction with The Times of India.

Stimac has transformed the culture and belief within the squad by instilling a winning mentality. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of his tenure so far has been the flexibility he has shown in order to achieve results.

With the AFC Asian Cup approaching in just six months' time, Stimac believes that we shouldn't dwell too much on the recent success. Instead, we should start preparing for the upcoming challenges, which are expected to be even tougher than what we have faced so far.

“Over the next few days, I will sit and analyse the performance, but we have forgotten about these results quickly. We cannot think as football followers and then be brought back to the ground again. We have to work really hard for the challenges we are going to face next will be very different,” Stimac told National Herald.

India's style of play has undergone a radical change, with the Blue Tigers now adopting a strategy of building up from the back through short passes and seeking opportunities from deeper positions. These elements are relatively new to the Indian national team and implementing them required a significant amount of time.

Stimac acknowledges that making such radical changes overnight is impossible and emphasizes the need for a gradual execution.

“We went for radical changes in the style of play and had to search for technically different players – using the first two years wisely to create a pool of players. Now, there is a pool of 30-35 players among whom the difference is not much and with cover for injuries,” he added.

The 55-year-old asserts that the changes we are now witnessing were initiated four years ago when he first arrived in India. However, he believes that we still have a long way to go in order to compete at the level of tougher opponents like Australia, Uzbekistan, or Syria, whom we will face in the group stages of the AFC Asian Cup. Therefore, he emphasizes the importance of continuing to work hard.

“We could deliver what we promised over the last four years. However, we are still far away from the level where we can beat opposition like Australia, a regular at World Cups, Uzbekistan or Syria (other teams in their group in Asian Cup) and have to start planning soon for that,” remarked the Croatian.

During the recently concluded SAFF Championship, Stimac was sent off twice for not maintaining decorum on the touchline, but the Croatian has asserted that he will do everything in his power to protect his players and provide them with a morale boost from the technical area.

“They are my family. They are like my sons whom I will do everything to protect. It’s my job to make sure they respect others but should also be passionate and patriotic while wearing the country’s shirt – you need it to succeed at the top level,” he stated.

The Blue Tigers played as many as nine games in less than one month's time, which is another rarity in Indian football. The Croatian hails the fitness level of his players and also emphasizes how fitness is equally crucial to performing well on the pitch.

“Through the last couple of months, we were the only team whose players were not falling down and looking for a break. We didn’t face any injuries and the players didn’t suffer from any cramps. Whatever I do on the pitch, needs to be backed up by the fitness of the players,” Stimac said to Indian Express.