MVP Gurpreet Singh Sandhu gives India a shot at history
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu has all the qualities of a solid shot-stopper. He's tall, authoritative and usually reliable between the posts. But he brings much more to the table, particularly with his clever distribution. Apart from the saves he made against UAE, here's a summary of his first 45 minutes:
• 11' - Long ball reaches Ashique Kuruniyan, who tries to lob an onrushing keeper, fails.
• 22' - Long ball to Udanta Singh. He dribbles, keeps the ball, gives to Anirudh Thapa. Thapa crosses to Sunil Chhetri, header, save. (Best chance of the half)
• 43' - Long ball dissects the defence, falls to Chhetri, who is through on goal, but glances it inches wide. (Second best chance of the half)
One of the only two survivors from India's last Asian Cup campaign, Gurpreet has the chance to write a bit of history against Bahrain. In fact, he could well be India's most important player on Monday night.
Gerard Zaragoza, assistant manager at Bengaluru FC, calls Gurpreet a "global" keeper. Zaragoza, who's seen the best in Asia during his time in Qatar, goes so far as to call him "one of Asia's best." "Times change and now we demand from them to be better tactically and to be better with feet," he tells ESPN. "Also, he trained in Europe. It is important because he knows football technically. He knows it tactically."
The modern goalkeeper has evolved, and so has Gurpreet. He's a thinker: he picks up books at the airport, he had good grades in school, and is always prepared to learn new tricks.
India's final group game could be perfectly set-up for Gurpreet. Bahrain have shown a lack of cohesion in midfield and defence on the counter in the opening two games. Gurpreet can capitalize on those open spaces. Bahrain struggled to deal with long balls against Thailand, and Gurpreet can be a vital cog in attack for India on Monday. It helps that Sunil Chhetri and Udanta Singh -- his favoured targets on the counter -- are also his club mates.
Distribution aside, Gurpreet's 'day job' won't be easy against Bahrain. Midfielder Ali Jaafar Madan, who has a vicious left foot, will keep him on high alert with his pace and trickery. Madan can play left, right or through centre, and also poses a threat from set pieces.
Goalkeeping is a lonely job. In one of the best books on goalkeepers, The Outsider, Jonathan Wilson writes: "The most influential opinion-formers have found a scapegoat: Marx blamed the capitalist system, Freud blamed sex, Dawkins blamed religion, Larkin blamed his parents and Dr. Atkins blamed the potato. Footballers blame the goalkeeper." It becomes lonelier if you are playing for a team that dominates possession. Outside the pitch, Gurpreet puts his idle mind to work with cooking, doodling and reading. And that's what he has bought to his football: a working mind with an ability to always stay in the game.
"He has saved us in many games," Zaragoza says of the times Gurpreet has kept Bengaluru in the game this season. "Minimum one or two saves and this is important because when you play in a team where you know that the ball will arrive at you only maximum two or three times, it is important that the goalkeeper be ready. I think in saving (in making saves) he is a special keeper." Bengaluru have conceded the fewest goals in the ISL this season.
"Thank god, everything is in our hands," Indian captain Chhetri had said after the UAE loss. Come Monday night, those hands might very well be Gurpreet Singh Sandhu's.