'We fought with honour' - Igor Stimac proud of India after thrilling last-gasp win over Afghanistan

Liston Colaco Afghanistan India ACQ 2023AIFF Media

India snatched a thrilling 2-1 win against Afghanistan in the 2023 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers on Saturday at the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan, courtesy a late winner from Sahal Abdul Samad.

The win kept India's perfect record in Group D of the qualifiers intact, keeping them on track to qualifying for the marquee event next year.

India head coach Igor Stimac was, evidently, a pleased man after the result that saw India sit atop the group along with Hong Kong. India, who defeated Cambodia 2-0 in the first game, have six points, as much as Hong Kong who they face next.

Article continues below

India are pretty much assured of qualification to the main event and Stimac praised his team's determination to score a winner in injury time after Afghanistan had cancelled out Sunil Chhetri's opener with a goal in the 88th minute.

"I will enjoy with my boys because of these two victories. I want to qualify for the Asian Cup final stages. I’m proud of my boys, they did everything we asked them to do and we fought with honour and deserved to win," the Croatian said after the game.

"We are called Blue Tigers. Today we played like Blue Tigers. We need to keep being tigers on the pitch. That’s the way we are heading to. Going out, enjoying the football and fighting for your country with pride and honour."

Sunil Chhetri Afghanistan India ACQ 2023AIFF Media

There has been growing criticism against India's inability to fashion chances and score goals under Stimac, especially against teams that sit deep and defend like Afghanistan. It has often been said that Stimac has been unable to get the Indian team to play beautiful football.

The former defender called for patience from fans and explained that beautiful football cannot be played overnight.

"In the last few years I’m getting tired to explain to everyone that good football doesn’t come overnight. It is a process that will take time. We have youngsters that can make us proud but we must be patient. We need to undertake that process of work in football is a lengthy process.

"Knowledge of football in India is so low. You can’t criticize points you don’t understand. I just ask for patience from the fans, nothing else," he added.

Kerala Blasters' attacking midfielder Sahal Abdul Samad was the match-winner for India on Saturday, popping up late to fire a strike past the Afghanistan goalkeeper. Stimac revealed how he implored Sahal to create an impact after coming on as a substitute.

Sahal Abdul Samad IndiaAIFF

"I told Sahal before the SAFF Cup final (16 October 2021) that sometimes one minute on the pitch can work better for you than 1,000. It depends on how you organize your time. I asked him to score if he got the opportunity late in the game as he did today. I need Sahal to rationalize his moves. He has so much quality, he can run he can sprint, but 50% of those are not effective," he said.

He also explained why Liston Colaco was preferred in a central attacking role at the start. Liston was later replaced by Brandon Fernandes.

"At the moment, Liston is our best player to play in the channels behind Sunil. He has the best quality to receive with the back towards the opposition goalkeeper. He was brilliant today. We had a plan to use Brandon and Liston for 45 minutes each before the game. I didn’t want to risk injuries and that is why we planned today. Then Sahal also came in and did his job well."

Stimac also praised the likes of Manvir Singh, Akash Mishra, Naorem Roshan Singh and Anwar Ali for their tireless efforts throughout the game.

How can India qualify for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup?

India are next up against Hong Kong in what is a clash that will decide who wins the group, on June 14. Stimac called on his side to enjoy the opportunity to play in front of a packed stadium and not worry about the result.

"We need to try to find a way to enjoy the game. If we need to win the group, we must win the game. Let’s just enjoy it. I must thank the fans who came to the stadium and I feel like we’ve paid up with a great performance. I must invite more people to come and enjoy these youngsters who will bring a brighter future.

"Maybe we can try without Sunil and see what we can do in that game. He deserves a rest now," said Stimac, dropping a hint that Chhetri might be rested for Tuesday's game.