India brace for tough test in Belarus football friendly

The Indian national team will face Belarus in the second of two scheduled friendlies, having lost the first to Bahrain 1-2. The players who were rested for the first game, after reaching Manama only a couple of hours prior to the match due to visa issues, will be available for selection.

At the start of the national camp, India coach Igor Stimac had spoken about the pace of international football and how it can be a few notches higher to the one most Indian players are used to in the Indian Super League. This was proved correct. Against Bahrain, most players failed to recover the ball quickly after losing it. The slightest bit of pressure would result in passes going awry or a clearance just landing in the opposition half where Bahrain would collect it and come back with yet another attack.

In order not to be wasteful, Stimac said he had asked players to focus on two aspects. One was to try to regain the ball immediately after losing it – and playing a high press with the forward line being the first line of defence. “On the five or six times we did, we couldn’t put the ball behind the defence, instead gave them (Bahrain) good training,” Stimac said at the pre-match press conference.

The second instruction was to commit small fouls so that Bahrain didn’t get the opportunity to gain momentum. India committed a grand total of 11 fouls in 90 minutes of football – five of which came through Chennaiyin FC forward Rahim Ali. Ali was singled out for praise by Stimac, along with Roshan Singh. The latter, making his international debut, was instrumental in providing the assist for the lone Indian goal – a left-footed cross that found defender Rahul Bheke in the box.

Ahead of the match against Belarus, Stimac said he expected his players to adapt to the pace of this game. “International football is more demanding, especially when we are playing higher-ranked teams. There is a huge difference in energy levels. I understand the players are mentally exhausted from staying in a bio-bubble for long. But I want my players to get used to such energy levels of playing in international football,” the Croat said.

“You could see that we were out of energy in the last 10 minutes against Bahrain. That is what makes the difference between ISL pace and international football.”

Football during war

This will be Belarus’ first international match since last November and more significantly, one of the few games their national team will be able to play this season. Due to Belarus’ involvement in Russia’s war on Ukraine, UEFA has banned the Football Federation of Belarus from holding any home games in the country and from hosting any fans at a neutral game for which they are hosts. Belarus has failed to make it to the World Cup in Qatar, losing seven of their eight qualification games.

“Belarus are a very well-known opposition to me. They are much more technical than Bahrain. They have recently played against higher-ranking teams such as Belgium and Wales. They play much more defensive and counter- attacking football. But I don’t see them being that much defensive against us,” Stimac said. He believes Belarus to be a tougher challenge than Bahrain but also said that he had better players available for this game as compared to the last outing.

Both Brandon Fernandes and Sahal Abdul Samad have become crucial to India’s plans. Two technical midfielders who can play with the ball and aren’t prone to conceding possession when under pressure, their prowess is likely to be tested on Saturday.

Both Anirudh Thapa and Jeakson Singh will also get minutes on the pitch and result aside, the match against Belarus will be an opportunity to test out a young midfield. Stimac also added that Anwar Ali and Ruivah Hormipam will get an opportunity to play in defence.

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