India goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu enjoyed a relaxed outing against Cambodia in the final round of the Asian Cup qualifiers on Wednesday, which the Blue Tigers won 2-0. Their opponents managed just three shots in the entire 90 minutes as compared to 17 by the hosts. If we look at the ball possession, the story was similar with India enjoying over 70 per cent of the ball.
India will now meet a comparatively tougher opponent in Afghanistan, who have held them 1-1 in the last two games.
Afghanistan kicked-off the qualifiers with a tough 1-2 loss against Hong Kong and the clash against India is a do-or-die encounter, so attack can be expected in full throttle.
Sandhu said he looked forward to the challenge and hoped to maintain another cleansheet. “That is the ultimate prize for any team, which is getting three points and not conceding a goal. Like the coach (Igor Stimac) said, that was one of the things that we spoke about before the (last) game and we achieved it. We will try to replicate that again tomorrow,” said India’s custodian at the pre-match press conference at the Salt Lake stadium on Friday.
After India’s win against Cambodia, a happy Igor Stimac, India’s head coach, had said the objective was to win and not concede.
Sandhu is not new to this part of the country. The first match he played at this venue was the iconic Kolkata derby during his stint with East Bengal. His initial steps into professional football started with the red-and-gold outfit that saw him make 44 appearances before he moved to Stabæk in the top tier of the Norwegian league.
“It is special, the first time that I played in Salt Lake Stadium was against Mohun Bagan when I was playing for East Bengal that was a different experience altogether for me as a professional player. And once you get the taste of it, you don’t want to let go.
“The first time that I played for the national team at Salt Lake stadium was against Bangladesh (October 2019). The fans showed up and it was a huge motivation. Every player who wants to put on this jersey and step on the pitch, they want to play in front of the fans. And there’s no better place than the Salt Lake Stadium,” he said.
However, going by Sandhu’s reputation, with Stimac already rating him among the “best goalkeepers in Asia”, the 30-year-old shot stopper had an average season with Bengaluru FC, who finished sixth on an 11-team table in 2021-22. He featured in 15 matches, had three clean sheets with a save percentage of 60.
The No. 1 said exiting the bubble due to personal health issues while the season was on, helped him rejuvenate for the qualifiers.
“In the ISL, I was sick. After the first week of February, I had typhoid. And that’s one of the reasons I had missed games. So, I feel like that was a good opportunity for me to get out of the bubble. Get my mindset ready for the camps and the tough games coming because I know that I have to work and show that I’m still capable of wearing the national jersey,” he said.
Following the ISL, the national team may not have won the friendlies against higher-ranked opponents but Sandhu showed a much-improved performance against all the three opponents. He also saved a penalty against Bahrain, which India eventually lost 1-2.
“I feel like what I’ve been doing in the last 45 days (at the preparatory camp with the India squad) is to show up every day with the same commitment that I will put in the game, and try to help the team out by any means possible, reduce mistakes, and try to be that one voice on the pitch, which is always encouraging, and always making sure that everyone is feeling a bit more safer,” he said.
Despite the immense backing by the coach, Sandhu has not taken his spot for granted and strives hard to stay ahead of the competition.
“Firstly, I thank the coach because it is very encouraging for any player when the coach backs you like that.
“It’s not that no one else is working, we are as a team working and I feel everyone is doing their job. I come here to do my job as well. I’m playing and not getting picked just because of my previous records. I have to show it every day and the coach will agree on this because there’s very high competition for this place. It requires us to perform every single day in the training session, even if no one is looking, even if there are two keepers, one keeper, or there are five guys, seven guys,” the goalkeeper said.