Asian Cup 2023: “He is like a rock for us” – Igor Stimac on Sandesh Jhingan

Sandesh Jhingan in action during the India vs Australia match in Asian Cup 2023 (Image: Swapnil Mukherjee for RevSportz)

“He has never had a bad season for the national team, and is like a rock for us,” said Igor Stimac, India’s coach, as the dust settles on the spirited fight and defeat to Australia. “A real leader of men, no praise is enough for Sandesh. We were excellent defensively against set pieces, and that’s our big takeaway from the game. In the first half, Australia weren’t able to dent our shape and the best chance was Sunil’s header.”

It is only natural that a large part of the credit goes to Sandesh Jhingan, who was heroic against Australia. Jhingan is all about effort. In the blue jersey, he will never shy away from taking a few blows and putting his body on the line. And having shed six kilos under Stimac’s coaching, he has improved as a player in the last few years. His contribution to FC Goa this season is undeniable, and it is perhaps apt to say that whichever team Jhingan plays for has the best defensive formation in the ISL.

Against an Australian side that has plenty of talent upfront, Jhingan was always going to be tested. And he was. Most times, he came out the winner and some of the blocks and clearances were simply breathtaking. It was because of him that India kept their defensive shape intact till the 50th minute, when a goalkeeping error opened things up for Australia.

In the aftermath of the defeat, Jhingan was pragmatic, “Of course you feel bad when you lose,” he said. “Like I said – For the desire, for the performance, for the passion, effort, I have no regrets. I think we did well. You cannot forget or you cannot just sideline the fact that Australia is one of the best teams in Asia. They played the World Cup last year. We know we put up a good fight. So, I’m pretty optimistic and I’m pretty positive that we are growing and that we’re getting better and rising.”

Thanking the Divine Providence, Sandesh Jhingan (Image: Swapnil Mukherjee for RevSportz)

The next comment was even better, “When I got into the system, we set our target that we have to make sure we are regulars at the Asian Cup,” he said. “So, to do that for the first time, I think, in the history of Indian football history – to do it twice, 2019 and now 2023 – is an achievement in itself. I think we are no pushovers anymore for anyone. We have earned the respect that we are there to compete. Wherever India goes, you could sense it. And now, it’s just about performing, to give your best.”

When asked about Stimac’s impact as coach and what he has brought to the set-up, Jhingan offered a detailed answer. “Brand of football,” he said. “We have grown together. He played the role of a father, elder brother or mentor when he first came in. When I went down with my ACL, he flew over from Delhi and every month, literally every month, he was in touch with me. So, personally, he helped me a lot and that’s where you develop a special bond with a person. You can give your best for such a coach. I am sure he will develop a similar bond with most of the other footballers as well.”

With India playing Uzbekistan on January 18, all eyes will again be on Jhingan and his colleagues in the defensive line. With the head coach expected to ring in a few changes and play a more attacking brand of football, Jhingan will have to guard against the counter. Uzbekistan too are a much-improved side. After the goalless draw against Syria, and without Eldor Shomurodov, their Italy-based attacking talisman, they will be desperate for a win against India to keep their hopes alive.

India too have a chance. A surprise win, like the 4-1 triumph over Thailand in 2019, could well be the game of the competition and set up the Syria match, which many expect India to do well in. And if that has to happen, we need Jhingan to be more than heroic. We need him to be the leader that he is and better his effort against Australia, which many said was the best he had played in national colours for a while. You ask him, and all he will say is: “We continue to rise.”

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