Gurpreet Singh Sandhu: The boy at the dike

NEW DELHI : Gurpreet Singh Sandhu laughs out loud. “If my hands start paining just by making saves, then I should die in chullu bhar paani (shame),” he says, the morning after he became only the fourth goalkeeper this year to stop a flashy, scoring-goals-for-fun Qatar side from finding the back of the net, and leading India to a goalless draw at the home of the Asian champions in their 2022 World Cup qualifier.

Qatar, the hosts of the 2022 World Cup, have been operating at a different level in 2019. They put six past North Korea and Afghanistan, four against a formidable UAE and three against Asian giants Japan. Against India, they had 27 shots at goal; 11 on target.

Captain Hassan Al Haydos tried six times – cutting in from wide positions on the left, aiming for the corners. Almoez Ali, the Sudanese-origin forward who is among Asia’s best, had a couple of stabs from close range. Abdelkarim Hassan unleashed a missile from roughly 30 yards out. And Portugal-born Qatari international Ro-ro aimed at the bottom left corner from the same distance.

The Asian champions had a go from all angles. But the 27-year-old custodian had them all covered – and on the rare occasions he was beaten, either the goalpost came to his rescue or the strikers were sloppy

For Sandhu, the pre-match intel came handy. He had studied exactly how, and where, the Qatari strikers prefer to shoot. “And then, you just have to stay ready. Stay on the feet and react,” he says. “It was a tough game.”

Sandhu’s tone understates just how tough it was. India kept a compact shape defensively – which forced Qatar to attack from wider areas – and crowded the box, leaving very little space for the strikers to try anything from inside the penalty area. That forced Qatar to take most of their shots either from sharp, wide angles or outside the box. And Sandhu, who is often accused of conceding soft goals, rarely lets anything in from long range.

When on the back foot against a quality opponent like this, India have often shown a tendency to lose focus and break down towards the later stages of a match – the 2019 Asian Cup group stage game against Bahrain, which followed a similar pattern where India conceded a late penalty to lose the match is an example.