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Goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu shines in Shootout as India clinch SAFF Championship against Kuwait
- Updated: July 5, 2023
India had been taken into deep waters over the past four days. More than 240 minutes of physically gruelling football against two good teams in Kuwait and Lebanon. And penalty shootouts were needed to decide these intense games.
Enter Gurpreet Singh Sandhu.
The SAFF Championship on the line, the Bengaluru FC goalkeeper guessed correctly, dove to his left, and stopped Kuwait captain Khaled Hajiah’s spot kick and for the second time in four days, won India a penalty shootout – this time for the team’s second trophy in two weeks.
Against Lebanon, Sandhu’s celebrations were muted. Against Kuwait, the Indian custodian had to acknowledge himself with a bow as a bevy of Indian players ran to envelope him. Sandhu’s efforts were the cherry on the cake that has been the performance of the Indian football team over the past few weeks.
To put it into context – nine matches, two goals conceded, 13 scored, and two trophies won. Look beyond the results and there lies a team that played well beyond expectations over the past few years. India levelled up their football – playing on the offensive, controlling the midfield and defending in numbers.
This was despite Kuwait’s best attempts at invoking the dark arts in the final and disrupting this new-look Indian team at every juncture.
Kuwait’s strategy for the final became apparent after just 10 minutes. In their earlier encounter in the group stage, India had managed to win the midfield battle. But the visitors came prepared this time. A higher defensive line meant that the gap between their backline and their furthermost player on the pitch was reduced considerably. This meant that the midfield was congested – implying that the team with players having better technical abilities would shine.
It also allowed Kuwait’s wider players to stretch their legs out and outrun the Indian flanks. Just 14 minutes into the match and it was the Indian goal that was breached first.
In their final training session, India coach Igor Stimac was seen telling the players, “If we lose the ball, within three seconds everyone has to be behind the ball.” It’s that ethos that this Indian team needs to build on, but is still lacking. Not enough of the midfield tracked back when Kuwait ran unchecked into the Indian half on a counter-offensive. Mubarak Al Faneni brought the ball and waited for the overlapping run from right-back Abdullah Buloushi – a run that should have been caught by Ashique Kuruniyan. But instead, Buloushi ran into the box, got the ball and then squared it off to Shabib Al Khaldi, who side-footed it into the net for an easy finish.