Igor Stimac, the head coach of the Indian national football team, feels that captain Sunil Chhetri is "playing like a 29-year-old" and remains irreplaceable for the next few years.
The 35-year-old Chhetri hasn't scored in the last three games of the 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign. His last goal for India came in the 1-2 loss to Oman in September.
Asked if he has found any player in India who can replace Chhetri in the future, Stimac said, "I don't know why people mention about replacing Sunil, he is not going anywhere. He is fit and doing his best. He is very valuable to us. His body is like a 29-year-old.
"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.
"He (Sunil) had some great chances, there was one against Afghanistan which normally Sunil scores nine out of 10 times. It did not happen that day, but that does not mean that something has changed in his game. It happens in football," Stimac said.
Stimac said the current team also has players who can score goals and he was hopeful of them stepping up and getting the job done for India.
"But at the same time. I will have chance to find out a few more players like Sunil Chhetri. I hope that once Jobby Justin starts playing games he will start scoring goals," he said.
"I hope a few other players like Seiminlen Doungel from FC Goa will start playing as central forward and Manvir Singh start scoring goals. We have some options."
"We will achieve what we have promised"
Stimac also said he was disappointed with India's performance in the last few matches and cited injuries to key players as the main reason behind the team going out of reckoning of a World Cup qualification. He also expressed his unhappiness at the clubs for not playing Indian players as strikers in the domestic leagues.
"We came back home a bit disappointed after the last two matches but that did not undermine our faith and believes in what we do. We faced big difficulties with the regard to opponents and climatic conditions. The injury problems were the most difficult issue we faced," Stimac said.
"Losing the most important players, Sandesh Jhingan, Rowlin Borges and Amarjit Singh, and then Pranoy Halder missing out a couple of matches initially and also injuring during the Oman match, all these have contributed to the results," he said.
"Halder suffered shoulder dislocation after a duel early into the match. Adil Khan said before the match that he was all right but after a few tackles, he felt pain. Rahul Bheke felt pain on his groin in the second half. These are surely setbacks in such an important campaign."
Stimac compared the current campaign to the 2018 World Cup qualifiers and said that the side under his charge has done better than the earlier one under Englishman Stephen Constantine.
"In the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, the team lost five matches on the trot and had zero points after five matches. Now we have two defeats and three draws and three points," he said.
"We have three more matches to play and now we are on way to achieve what we have promised, that we are going to compete in 2023 Asian Cup and doing better than before once we are there. We want to prepare the team better and go into the qualifiers of the next (2026) World Cup with higher expectations."
"This is a brave new team"
Asked about the lack of goals in the qualifying campaign, Stimac retorted: "Can you mention any player holding an Indian passport playing in any club and scoring goals? Why are you expecting that we are going to score goals in the international level when we don't have a single striker playing in the domestic league and scoring goals?
"I don't work with the players on a daily basis, I work with them for only five days before the game. But the important thing is we are creating chances. The team does not fear any opposition. That is different from earlier teams, this is a new brave team, India with the heart and courage to play football and win matches."
He pleaded for patience from all stakeholders in Indian football to rise to the next level, to be able to rub shoulders with the best in Asia and the world.
"I am a very realistic person, we got what we have to get and we cannot go beyond that. It will be a long process and it will take time. We need to be patient. We are improving step by step.
"The average number of passes in the Asian Cup (in January this year) was 242 in the 90 minutes, now it is 400; passing accuracy in the Asian Cup is 67 per cent but now it is 82 per cent. We reduced the long range passes from 25 per cent to 15 per cent. We increased match tempo which is about running and quality running from 13.2 to 15.2," he said.
Stimac was also hopeful that he will have a long camp with the players in between India's next World Cup qualifying match against Qatar (at home on March 26) and the last two games -- against Bangladesh (away, June 4) and Afghanistan (at home, June 9).