Goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu shines in shootout as India clinch SAFF Championship against KuwaitJuly 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.
India’s response was swift – a deep ball chested down by right-winger Lallianzuala Chhangte. The ball was then slapped towards goal by a left-footed strike from Sunil Chhetri. The Kuwaiti ’keeper spilled the shot and almost allowed Chhangte to score on the counter.
In the 38th minute though, India, who were still looking to regain some midfield control, scored a goal of beauty – yet another in a tournament that has seen a couple of well-worked moves from the hosts.
It all started with a loose ball that Kuruniyan had drifted out to the left side of the Kuwait box with. His dribbling can almost be lazy at times, lulling opponents into not nipping at his heels. Perhaps that is the reason he was able to slide a pass to Chhetri, who was just outside the box.
Using the outside of his left boot, the India captain threaded the finest of needles, splitting the Kuwaiti defence and passing the ball into the box. Sahal Abdul Samad had a free run after that magical pass and just as it looked like he would pull the trigger, the Kerala Blasters midfielder squared the ball across the Kuwaiti box to an unmarked Chhangte, who tapped it in. Both teams went into the dugout at the end of the first half with the scores level.
If the first half was a tight affair with each team trying to impose their style of play, the second half opened up the game. But what remained a constant was Kuwait’s time-wasting tactics – be it intentional fouling, taking soft tackles and making them into fouls and feigning injuries. The visitors were clearly tired and each and every break in play was a welcome respite for them.
By the 66th minute, India had two yellow cards and Kuwait three. Poor tackles from both sides meant that a red card seemed to be more a case of when rather than if. At one point in the 80th minute, cameras caught Chhetri with folded hands, begging defenders Sandesh Jhingan and Nikhil Poojary to keep themselves calm.
Just as the game seemed like heading into extra time, Kuwait almost scored in the 91st minute. A low shot to Gurpreet’s right was launched by striker Mohammad Daham. But the Indian goalkeeper dived low and managed to keep the scores level. A few minutes later, the referee blew the whistle and the game would have to be decided in extra time.
Thirty minutes of extra time came and went with the Indians holding on gingerly. The excessive number of games over a short period seemed to have taken its toll as the presses came down and legs started to finally show some weariness. Neither team could capitalise and the game went to penalties.
Chhetri went for the right side of the goal and the rest of the team followed. Kuwait missed their first penalty, with Daham clattering the crossbar. Both Jhingan and Chhangte scored next but Udanta Singh skied the ball over the bar. The scores level, substitutes Subhashish Bose and Mahesh Singh Naorem scored their kicks and Kuwait didn’t miss any of theirs until Hajiah stepped up and had his attempt saved by Sandhu.