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Igor Stimac: Gurpreet preferred goalkeeper in friendlies against Bahrain, Belarus

Ahead of India’s friendly against Bahrain at the Sheikh Ali bin Mohammed Al Khalifa Stadium on Wednesday, head coach Igor Stimac has told his team to forget the horrors of the past and step into the pitch with optimism.

The Blue Tigers were knocked out after losing 1-0 to Bahrain in their last meeting in the group stage of the Asian Cup in 2019. The goal came in the dying minutes through a Jamal Rashid penalty. “Remembering the game against Bahrain – that’s not something I want to see here tomorrow,” Stimac told reporters on Tuesday.

“I want to see our team going out on the pitch, brave, with a positive attitude, concentrating on the attack. We are going to play middle press and high-press. We’re going to take certain risks in the intention to play more, attack more.”

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After the Bahrain challenge, India will play Belarus on March 26.

The coach clarified that seven players have still not joined the camp. They are stuck in Mumbai for their visa approvals. “Amrinder Singh, Anirudh Thapa, Aniket Jadhav, Akash Mishra, Bipin Singh, Chinglesana Singh, Brandon Fernandes are stuck in Mumbai, awaiting approval of visas for which we applied two months ago,” he said.

Stimac introduced seven new faces, including three players from the Indian Super League finals — Prabhsukhan Gill and Hormipam Ruivah from Kerala Blasters FC and Aniket Jadhav from Hyderabad FC — for the friendlies and added that these matches will give them more opportunities after a successful ISL season.

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“This ISL season has been extremely exciting and we’ve seen some new faces. We’re going to give chance to those boys and see how they can do at the international level against stronger opposition and if we can count on them for the upcoming qualifier,” he said.

Gurpreet Singh Sandhu will be the preferred custodian despite Gill winning Golden Glove with the most number of clean sheets in the ISL. “As you know the goalkeeping position is very important for us and for such important matches, we stick with the goalkeeper, No.1, which is Gurpreet.”

“Nevermind he didn’t have a very successful season with the club or on a personal level, but he has been training for the last 11-12 days with the goalkeeping coach and the team. Gurpreet is, by my and our staff, the best goalkeeper we have in the country, and I’m not a favourite of changing that position often or without any need.”

India will miss Sunil Chhetri for the friendlies, who has been ruled out with an injury, and Stimac insisted that the team will have to take responsibility in his absence.

“Of course, we’ve Manvir here, Rahim Ali, Suhair, Liston and other boys, but most of all, the whole team needs to replace Sunil and his goals. We want players to show up and take responsibility and forget about Sunil at the moment. He will join us for the upcoming camp,” he added.

The next camp starts April 24 and after the players’ COVID-19 tests, the final list of 28 players will be finalised. “After two initial weeks (thereafter), we’re going to go somewhere to play a few friendly games which are in negotiations and my plan is to play the last friendly game in the last week of May, just prior to the qualifiers, with the venues probably being Kolkata or Doha, Qatar,” he said.

The friendlies, now and the ones planned, are expected to prepare India for the AFC Asian Cup 2023 Qualifiers, which are set to begin on June 8 in Kolkata. India has been grouped in Group D, alongside Hong Kong, Cambodia and Afghanistan.

The friendlies against Bahrain and Belarus will kick off at 9:30 pm (IST).

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