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The Igor Stimac-era is officially set to get underway on Wednesday as India prepare to kickstart the King’s Cup against Curacao in what will be the latest chapter in Indian football. After a tough 10-day preparatory camp that saw Stimac narrow down his preliminary squad of more than 30 players to 23, the Blur Tigers will be eager to make a good impression and showcase what life under the Croat will be like. With plenty of fresh faces in the squad, here’s what India’s starting XI against Curacao may look like in an attack-minded 4-3-3 formation.
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu
The Indian goalkeeper has gone to make the number 1 spot his own over the past few years and that’s probably how it’ll be with Stimac as well. Sandhu’s one of the few players in the team with European pedigree having previously enjoyed a stint with Norwegian side Stabaek. He’s also Hero Indian Super League (ISL) champions Bengaluru FC’s first-choice custodian and makes for a menacing presence in goal with his formidable frame.
Sandhu’s Bengaluru teammate Bheke has been one of the biggest beneficiaries since Stimac’s appointment. Constantly overlooked under previous head coach Stephen Constantine, Bheke has been regarded by many as one of the best full-backs in the country for some time now. Solid in defence and enterprising in attack, he’s a man for the big occasions as he showed with his goal in the Hero ISL final. Him starting for India has been long overdue and something many fans will be looking forward to.
A constant in the heart of defence for the past few years, Jhingan is likely to keep his place in the team and build on his performances under former head coach Constantine. A powerful and towering presence in the backline, Jhingan will be hoping for more consistent displays in the future. He’ll also need to respond to the added responsibility of being the senior defender in India’s rearguard.
Another player who has benefitted from Stimac’s appointment, Adil’s addition to the defence is certain to beef up the Indian backline. A versatile player who’s comfortable in the defensive midfield role and can play out of defence, how he fares in national colours will be interesting to see. Adil’s knack for finding the back of the net also makes him a threat from set-pieces.
The 23-year-old full-back has become a mainstay in the Bengaluru and Blue Tigers backline with energetic displays that see him marauding down the flanks, while also ensuring defensive discipline. However, there’s a lot of scope for improvement with his final product in the opposition final-third, which is something Stimac will undoubtedly keep reminding him of.
Halder will be probably be tasked with the role of sitting in front of the backline to protect India’s defence. A robust tackler who loves to be in the thick of things, Halder’s role in the side may not be the most glamorous, but its importance cannot be undermined. He’ll be hoping that his dirty work allows India’s more attack-minded players to get forward with more freedom and security.
A technically gifted individual who’s known to demonstrate maturity beyond his years in terms of decision-making on the pitch, Thapa was instrumental to Chennaiyin FC’s second Hero ISL triumph and is likely to grow in influence for India under Stimac. The 21-year-old, of course, is no stranger to the national setup and will be hoping to kick on and build on his previous performances with the Blue Tigers.
Sahal Abdul Samad
Perhaps one of the biggest revelations from the last Hero ISL season and Kerala Blasters’ only positive from the campaign, Sahal’s not wasted much time breaking into the senior national team. Despite still being raw, his tenacity and composure on the ball could well be what India have lacked in the recent past. He was the Emerging Player of Hero ISL 2018-19 and his development over the next few years is another story that’ll be intriguing to follow.
Udanta is no longer considered a blistering young winger, but more of a senior player with lots of experience under his belt. That said, he’s still just 22 years of age and loves to leave opposition defenders in his wake with trickery and brisk feet. However, having been part of the senior team for most of Constantine’s reign, he’ll be expected to take his game to the next level under the Croatian’s tutelage.
India’s all-time leading goal-scorer Chhetri should spearhead the frontline having done so for most of his career. Now the elder statesman in the side at the age of 34, Chhetri still possesses the passion and youthful exuberance that comes with the love for the game. Under Stimac, he’ll now want to guide the youngsters and pass the torch to the future generation of budding Indian footballers, while also still contributing on the pitch.
One of the most talented up and coming wingers, Soosairaj’s inclusion to the national team had been mooted for the past two years. Constantine though opted to ignore those calls, meaning the 24-year-old’s first taste of senior international football will come under Stimac. Blessed with lightning pace and confidence on the ball, Soosairaj found the back of the net four times from wide areas for Jamshedpur FC last season. His ability to take on opposition defences and create chances for teammates makes him a big threat.
Written by: Andre Pitts