New Delhi, Nov 21: India head coach Igor Stimac has backed captain Sunil Chhetri, who didn't look in the best of his form during the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers. The Croatian said Chhetri may be on the wrong side of 35 but his fitness is that of a 29-year-old and that the Bengaluru FC forward never gives him a chance to think of replacements.
Since netting India's lone goal in the 1-2 loss to Oman in September, he has not found the target in the last three matches of the 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign.
Asked if he has found any player in India who can replace Chhetri in the future, the 52-year-old, on the sidelines of the launch of 13th season of I-League, said, "I am also looking for replacements but Sunil keeps scoring goals (and impresses me). I don't know why people mention about replacing Sunil, he is not going anywhere. He is there fit and doing his best. He had some great chances during the WC Qualifier game against Afghanistan, which normally on nine out of ten occasions he scores but it didn't happen that day. But it doesn't mean that something has changed in his game. It happens in football. He is very valuable to us. His body is like a 29-year-old."
Chhetri is currently the second-highest international goal scorers among active players, only behind Portugal superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. He is the most-capped player and also the all-time top scorer for the Indian national team, with 72 goals in 115 appearances.
"As long as he is training like he is doing right now and giving his best for the national team, he will be with us, I can assure you that. But I hope, at the same time that I will have a chance to find out a few more like Sunil Chhetri. Once Jobby Justin starts playing he will start scoring goals for the national team. I hope that young players will also start contributing in the upcoming games and scoring goals," the coach said.
"We developed in every aspect of the game, still there is a scoring problem. We conceded some silly goals and we accept that but with regards to the oppositions we faced, we are not conceding many. We need to keep working hard," he claimed.
Talking about the recent disappointments the coach said, "At the very beginning of my tenure I said if we all stick together and positive, it will be easier for us to gain better results. Of course, there is always some negative comments because of the higher expectations but we got what we got. We can't go beyond that. It's a long process, it will take time and you know the problems we are facing. We need to be patient, have faith in what we do and that's the only way we can be successful. That's the way and approach we are having."