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Stimac hails Sahal, onus on Kerala Blasters midfielder to replicate club form for country

This edition of ISL has thrown up new Indian faces, who have contributed with assists and goals which bodes well for national team.

Written by Mihir Vasavda |
Updated: March 15, 2022 5:25:40 pm
India coach Igor Stimac said Sahal Abdul Samad is one of his 'favourite' players because of his creativity and game IQ. Credit: ISL

Igor Stimac is unlike a lot of coaches. He isn’t shy of talking about individual players on public forums – hyping them up, or even declaring who his favourites are in the team – like some of his contemporaries are.

On Monday, he couldn’t stop gushing about Sahal Abdul Samad, a player everyone has been raving about in the Indian Super League. “If I would say I have a few favourite players, he would be one of them. He has creativity, passion and understands football,” Stimac said, as the national team began its preparation for the twin friendlies against Bahrain and Belarus next week. “We know his qualities but players need to perform and he is doing it. He has had a great season.”

Indeed, Sahal has.

Players like Sahal, who play with a lot of flair and creativity, have been rare to come by in Indian football, at least in the last decade or so. But in the last couple of years, there were concerns if the Kerala Blasters midfielder, who was born and brought up in the UAE, would be able to justify his potential.

Invariably, Sahal would start the season with a bang; mesmerising touches, weaving past defenders and scoring goals. But as the season progressed, his form would taper and by the end of it, he would have dwindled into oblivion.

Not this time, however. Right from Kerala’s first match against ATK Mohun Bagan till the first leg of the semifinal against Jamshedpur last Friday, Sahal has been influencing play in a manner few Indian players have across teams.

A large part of the credit for bringing out the best of him goes to Kerala manager Ivan Vukomanovic, whom Stimac ‘thanked’ for improving Sahal. Under Vukomanovic, who has called Sahal the ‘future’ of Indian football, the midfielder has played on the right instead of the centre.

This one small tweak, taking him away from crowded midfield, seems to have given him the wings to launch into flying runs on the flanks and cut in sharply to either set up a teammate or take a shot himself.

There’s more to him than just that, as his goal in the semifinal showed where Sahal burst through the centre to meet a high ball by Alvaro Vasquez – Sahal started sprinting forward even before Vasquez released the ball, displaying his game understanding – and then smartly lobbying it over an onrushing Jamshedpur goalkeeper.

With India struggling for pace and creativity in the attacking third, especially on the wings, Sahal’s resurgence is good news for Stimac. And it’s not just him. Stimac, for once, will have a chance to look at multiple new faces that have had a breakout season.

The former Croatia international has been under scrutiny for a string of underwhelming performances. It didn’t help Stimac’s cause that a lot of players in key positions – centre-backs, central midfielders and forwards – came to the national team unfit and under-prepared, having warmed the bench for most of the ISL season.

It’s different this time, with a lot of new faces coming through the ranks after the league reduced the foreign player quota to four. While Sahal has starred for Kerala, another team with a strong Indian core – Hyderabad – too, is on the cusp of its maiden ISL final.

During the league phase of the ISL, 10 different Indian players provided 20 assists for Hyderabad. According to the ISL, it’s a ‘tally no other outfit’ could better. That Hyderabad had a bunch of talented Indian players was evident from their previous campaigns. This season, it’s finally falling in place for them.

More playing time for Indian players has resulted in more new faces getting a call-up for the national team. Stimac said the two friendlies – the match against Belarus, the coach added, is on at the moment despite the country being isolated by most sports, except football, for supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – will be a chance to see whether the ISL can translate their club form for the country.

Taking a cue from the past, Stimac is under no illusion that the performances can be drastically different. “It is important for me to find out how the players can do on the international stage,” Stimac said. “The pace of ISL is far below the pace of international football. Sometimes, we are impressed with some players in ISL but when it comes to international football there is nothing they can do or help us.”

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This will be crucial even for Sahal. And Stimac will hope one of his favourites won’t be a victim of this syndrome.

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