While Chhetri scores winners, Gurpreet continues to lead India from the back
Sunil Chhetri was named Man of the Match against Kyrgyzstan for his winning goal in India's Asian Cup qualifier in Bengaluru on Tuesday night but an alternative candidate could have been goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, whose role was just as important.
A series of saves in India's 1-0 win was only the latest of Sandhu's strong international performances, a run that has coincided with India's rise up the rankings of world football to 100. Sandhu has started almost all the matches, conceding two goals in four matches in 2017. No goal has been scored against India in the last 298 minutes.
Indian goalkeepers have always been known for their shot-stopping abilities but where Sandhu (25) has improved considerably and stands above any other Indian goalkeeper today - to the extent that he has captained the national team on occasion - is his collection and decision-making. And that was tested to the hilt on Tuesday evening.
As early as the third minute, Sandhu had a decision to make, as Kyrgyz left-back Amanbek Manybekov sent in a long, diagonal ball just outside the Indian penalty area for their all-time top scorer Anton Zemlianukhin. Sandhu came off his line and put everything into a challenge for the ball, thankfully getting to the ball before clipping Zemlianukhin's ribs. It was a gamble, and one that had to either pay off or result in a straight red. In the end, it ended the game for one of the players, but Sandhu had shown the way for his team-mates in not backing away, quite literally, from the task on hand.
Through the rest of the first half, Sandhu was kept busy, with a fingertip save off Mirlan Murzaev giving the visitors their fourth corner in the first quarter of an hour. Sandhu was assured in stopping shots, and dominant when coming out to collect crosses and loose balls. He also kept his composure when it could easily have gone awry, especially when an indirect free-kick was given in the 28th minute inside the Indian box, when Sandhu was deemed to have held a deliberate back-pass from Narayan Das, though the first question was whether Das had been fouled when on the ball.
Fortune and teamwork combined to help him out the odd occasion he was beaten, such as Akhildin Israilov's left-footed curler that hit the post in the 55th minute, and when Vitalij Lux pounced on the ball after Murzaev's stabbed attempt bounced off Sandhu six minutes later, cleared off the line by Anas Edathodika.
Fittingly, the last action of both halves involved saves from Sandhu, off Farkhat Musabekov on the stroke of half-time, and then when he tipped over a vicious attempt from distance by Lux off what turned out to be the last attempt on goal on either side.
There is a maturity about Sandhu's game in recent months, and it is no coincidence that this has come around the same time that he has started playing more regularly in Norway. The absence of a safety net that a young goalkeeper might have when playing for an Indian club would not be there for him in Europe, and this has probably given him an added sense of responsibility that reflects when he turns out for India. The fact that Constantine has made him captain in a few of the recent internationals would also have helped.
One area that he could still improve on is his communication with the defenders. The earliest bit of action against Zemlianukhin could have been avoided if he had trusted his defence more and stayed in the penalty box. It ended well, but a foul and a red card at that point could have completely turned the tide in favour of the opposition.
What India would hope is that this winning habit, and Sandhu's ability to put his body on the line when defending his goal, will be something he can maintain all the way to the end of the Asian Cup qualifying campaign.