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We're the favourites to progress from the Group, says Stimac on Asian Cup qualifiers

India football head coach Igor Stimac feels the team is the favourite to progress from its Asian Cup qualification group but has urged his side to earn the results on the pitch. Stimac is overseeing a national team camp ahead of two friendlies against Bahrain and Belarus later this month in preparation for the qualifiers.

The Blue Tigers are placed in Group D alongside Cambodia, Afghanistan and Hong Kong. The side begins its campaign against Cambodia on June 8.

“Our chances are there. We are favourites and are hosting the group. There is nothing we should be complaining about, but we should earn it on the pitch. We cannot take anyone easily, not look at the rankings. That’s how we are going to prepare,” said the Croatian.

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Stimac also stated the friendly against Belarus in Bahrain is on ‘as of now’, with the possibility of sanctions against the European nation, over its role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“We are going to Bahrain to face them (Bahrain). Bahrain is hosting these games. So, as of now, the game is on,” he said.

Skipper Sunil Chhetri pulled out of the friendlies due to injury, while senior players Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Sandesh Jhingan are in line to captain the side.

On Chhetri’s absence, Gurpreet said, “Obviously, we know how well Sunil has been for us and what impact he brings. We need to take this as a challenge and not be too dependent on him. We need to make sure, we perform to our abilities. There will be times, he won’t be there and there were times he wasn’t there like when he played against Qatar in Qatar (2019) and the Dubai friendlies last year. He is a great player and whenever he comes, he is phenomenal for us but we can’t be too reliant on him.”

Gurpreet, who had a tough outing between the sticks in the Indian Super League (ISL) season), received the backing of Stimac to come good.

“I have already spoken to Gurpreet and I already told him his season wasn’t been as good as seasons before. I am very confident about our goalkeepers and Gurpreet is among the best goalkeepers in Asia. We are already in the training process, to bring him back to his best. I am sure he will be very confident when the match kicks off. I would say, apart from Prabhsukhan Gill, every goalkeeper had a nightmare season. There were too many unnecessary mistakes but that’s part of football. I would never blame the goalkeepers. There were mistakes prior to the mistakes by the outfielders, which put pressure on the goalkeepers as well. But some of the goals conceded were funny,” said Stimac.

Stimac: Pursuit of regular success in AFC Asian Cup must for India

India last played in the SAFF Championship in October, when the team lifted the trophy for a record-extending eighth time. On the upcoming friendlies, Stimac said, “We are looking to perform well and get a closer look at new faces. I want to see how much they can do at the international level. The pace of the ISL is far below international football. Sometimes, we are impressed with some players in ISL but they can’t help us in the same way on the international stage. We need to be quite sure about their qualities at this level. I am planning to give everyone certain minutes on the pitch to track their form and their capacity in the national team.”

Gurpreet pointed out the benefits of the ISL’s decision to move to a four foreign player quota in the playing XI and expects the league to stick with the decision. “Definitely [to continue with the rule]. Even the coach [Stimac] has been fighting to reduce the number of foreigners because it gives an extra spot for an Indian player and provides a platform for us to showcase our talent. We have seen new faces coming up [this year] come in and perform. I hope we continue with the move and it’s a great move. When everything goes back to normal and the season becomes longer, we will cherish the decision and we will look back and realise that it’s a great move,” said the 30-year-old.

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