India's Brandon Fernandes braced for tough World Cup qualifiers
It's now or never for India in their 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign.
The Blue Tigers will take on Afghanistan in the Tajikstan capital Dushanbe on Thursday before travelling to Muscat to face Oman.
The significance of the upcoming double header is not lost on India winger Brandon Fernandes.
“It is very important to have positive results. There are no easy matches here. All the matches are tough,” he revealed in a chat with the Olympic Channel.
With two draws and a loss so far, India's footballers find themselves in a precarious situation, placed fourth in the five-team Group E.
Fernandes though refuses to look too far ahead: “We have to take one match at a time," he explained.
"We have played Afghanistan in the past and that helps to a certain extent, but then, this match will be tough and we have no doubt about that.”
There are a couple of elements Fernandes will have to readjust to on arrival in Dushanbe.
First of all is the pitch at the Central Republican Stadium, which is artificial turf as opposed to natural grass.
Then there is the weather.
Temperatures may not be unusually cold for the time of year in Tajikistan - it's expected to be around 10 degrees celsius at kick off on Thursday.
But for a player brought up in the balmy climes of Goa, it is still a considerable difference.
“We will be playing in a very cold place. We are expecting the climate to be challenging. That’s another factor that we have to deal with and get accustomed to,” he said.
“But this is a very important match for us. The focus is now on that. It’s important to do well and the team knows. It’s important that we have positive results because going forward, these results will matter a lot. Moreover, these matches will help us build our confidence too, moving forward.”
The playmaker really made his name in the 2017-18 season that saw him lead his club FC Goa to a semifinal finish in the Indian Super League (ISL).
It proved to be a pivotal moment for the Goan, who has gone from strength to strength ever since.
Last season, he was one of the main players in the Goa side that made it to the final of the ISL, scoring six times in the league as well as finding the winner in the Super Cup final.
His outstanding performances on the domestic circuit were rewarded when the Indian head coach Igor Stimac included him in the squad for the King’s Cup — an invitational competition in Thailand — earlier this year.
“It’s been great. Representing my country has always been a dream, and now I am living that dream. It’s been a fine start so far and I am confident about building on this,” he said when asked about the past few months.
With Stimac taking over the Indian team this year, the Blue Tigers seemed to have moved away from the largely defensive style under former head coach Stephen Constantine.
A more adventurous approach has seen the team play a pass-and-move game, with greater emphasis on possession and passing.
And with most of the domestic teams playing a similar brand of football in the leagues, the players too have found Stimac’s approach easy to adapt to and Fernandes is full of praise for his national manager:
“Igor is a very smart coach. He analyses the opponent well and then decides on the tactics for a particular game,” said the FC Goa winger.
“Maybe sometimes, we play (the way we play at the club) but sometimes we go direct. It all depends on the opposition. We try to adapt to whatever he desires from us. If he wants us to keep the ball, we do that.”
Fernandes made his impact felt when coming on as substitute for India in their last World Cup qualifier against Bangladesh in Kolkata.
Coming off the bench, he provided the assist for Adil Khan to score a crucial late equaliser in a 1-1 draw.
A relatively quiet character by nature, Fernandes is certainly making his personality felt on the pitch.