'Stimac has changed everything, on and off the pitch'
India's players, fresh off their memorable draw against Qatar in Doha on Tuesday night, have credited coach Igor Stimac for having prepared his team well for the challenge of facing the Asian champions. However, Stimac himself has called the team's performance "an invitation to the next match."
India, who are aiming to appear in successive Asian Cup finals for the first time in history, can do so by finishing in the top two of Group E of their FIFA World Cup qualification second round.
"Everyone played their hearts out, and gave everything out on the pitch," goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who stood in as captain for the injured Sunil Chhetri, and led the way with a series of fine saves, said.
"We have played two matches, that too against two powerful teams, and we have played well. It gives us that added motivation and confidence, that in football, anything is possible."
Midfielder Sahal Abdul Samad, drafted into the starting line-up in place of Brandon Fernandes, credited Stimac for freeing up the players after a first half where the Indian goal appeared to be under siege more often than not.
"At the interval, the coach told us to come out and attack, and enjoy our football," Sahal said. "That motivated us further. We played it around, and stretched them [Qatar] while maintaining our shape."
Sahal's midfield partner Anirudh Thapa, who had scored for India on AFC Asian Cup debut during their 4-1 win against Thailand, rated the draw in Qatar as his most memorable cap for India yet. "Qatar are an extraordinary side and this was a qualifier match as well, which makes the result even sweeter for us," he said. "The coach has changed everything -- things we do on and off the pitch."
"After the Oman result, it was not easy to play against Qatar," defender Mandar Rao Desai said. "The coach did a lot of research on the opponents and gave us a lot of short videos to watch, to prepare. We watched them perhaps a million times. He [Stimac] brought in a lot of positivity, which was so crucial."
Defender Adil Khan, who had an improved outing after a mistake-ridden second half performance against Oman, felt that India are making progress under Stimac.
"I hope more and more fans start believing in him after this performance," he said. "Playing a team as strong as Qatar, who have won all their matches against Asian sides in 2019, and not conceding a goal is special."
Stimac himself was generous in his praise of the Qatar team, who had every statistic of the match in their favour apart from the scoreline.
"Of course, Qatar deserved more from the game. They created more chances. They had more corners, but we also had chances," he said. "When we become more experienced, we will score from those chances.
"All credit goes to my players -- I'm very proud of them. I want to send them a message. Just keep (your heads) down. It's only one point. If we don't win games against Bangladesh and Afghanistan, this point won't matter much."
Stimac concluded with a message for fans ahead of India's next qualifying game, at the Salt Lake Stadium, Kolkata on October 15.
"This was our proud invitation to the Indian people for our next match," he said. "I want to see 80000 people in Kolkata against Bangladesh. We deserve that and we are expecting all of them to come and help us get three points."