Igor Stimac and his players aren’t looking at the scorelines these days. That, in a way, is good for them because the result box hasn’t been making for a flattering read of late.
Stimac has been here for almost two months now and has overseen the team in four matches. In three of them, they’ve been comfortably outplayed. First by Curacao, the CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinalists, then by Tajikistan last Sunday. And on Saturday, it was North Korea who inflicted another morale-sapping 5-2 thrashing on the Indians, who are now practically out of contention for the Intercontinental Cup final next week.
India’s trajectory has taken a dramatic nosedive since the two promising performances against Thailand and UAE at the Asian Cup earlier this year. However, instead of building on it, India seem to have taken several steps backward. But Stimac isn’t panicking yet.
This, he says, is a getting-to-know-each other phase for him and the players. More for him, actually, than the players. “I am not looking at the scorelines right now. I am looking at India’s scorelines for the future. We are using these games to find out everything about all the candidates,” Stimac said after the match.
The Croat has tried 27 different players in the four matches he’s been in charge so far and he still doesn’t appear to be sure of his preferred playing 11. On Saturday, there were two very different Indian teams on display in the first and second half.
Stimac made nine changes to the team that started against Tajikistan last Sunday. Manvir Singh, who has struggled for goals the entire last season, was drafted on the right wing with Brandon Fernandes on the left. Jobby Justin, the exciting young striker, played alongside Sunil Chhetri up front while at the back, Amrinder Singh replaced Gurpreet Singh Sandhu in the goal and Subhashish Bose was the makeshift centre-back alongside Sandesh Jhingan. None of these changes had an impact. India’s hallmark in the last few matches, especially in the Asian Cup against Thailand and UAE, were the quick turnovers, pace on the wings and interplay between the wingers and forwards. Most goals India scored were from plays that were initiated on turnovers, with former coach Stephen Constantine exploiting the pace on the wings provided by Udanta Singh. In sharp contrast, India’s buildup play in both matches in the tournament has been slow. Especially against North Korea, Manvir could not beat his marker once. The full-backs and centre-backs tried to find him with long balls but his hold up play wasn’t up to the mark as well. Fernandes, on the left, was wasted for most periods.
Having easily blunted India’s limited attacking options, North Korea pressed forward without having to break much sweat. Jong il Gwan (8th and 29th minutes) and Sim Jin (16’) gave the visitors a comfortable 3-0 lead at half time as Stimac fumed at India’s lack of ‘courage and confidence’ in the first 45. Stimac turned things around in the second half by bringing in Udanta, Lallianzuala Chhangte and Anirudh Thapa for Manvir, Justin and Fernandes. The three changes injected pace that was lacking in the first half and India looked a side transformed. Chhangte pulled one back for India in the 51st minute, giving a faint hope to the 9,000-odd spectators. Once again, though, they were good only in patches. North Korea withstood the 10-minute spell of pressure and then killed the game by scoring the fourth just after the hour mark. Chhetri scored a consolation goal in the 71st minute as India slumped to another defeat under the new coach.
How long will Stimac refrain from looking at the scoreline, one does not know. “But now everything is very clear to me,” he said. “I know who we can count on and who we can’t.”