The stage is set for India’s fourth-ever appearance in the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) Asian Cup with the 24 top teams from the continent about it battle it out for the big prize in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Runners-up in the 1964 edition, India have suffered group-stage exits in their subsequent two appearances in 1984 and 2011. Drawn alongside hosts UAE, Thailand and Bahrain in Group A for the upcoming edition, India have their task cut out if they are to progress to the knockouts.
Only two players from the India squad managed by Bob Houghton in the 2011 edition remain in the one being shepherded by Stephen Constantine in the UAE. One of them is Sunil Chhetri who will carry the burden of goalscoring once again after finishing as India’s top-scorer in 2011.
The other is Gurpreet Singh Sandhu who was still an uncapped rookie in Qatar. Now India’s established first-choice goalkeeper, Gurpreet will know what is expected of him in the UAE after watching Subrata Paul’s performance from close range in the 2011 edition.
Drawn with heavyweights Australia, South Korea and Bahrain in Group C, India bowed out with a whimper in the group-stages after tasting heavy defeats in all three clashes. Yet, despite India conceding a staggering 13 goals from their fixtures, Paul came out with his reputation more than enhanced at the continental level.
With Paul’s brilliant efforts between the sticks, it could have been a lot worse for Houghton and his men. The custodian drew accolades for his heroics from many quarters including his Australia counterpart Mark Schwarzer. His acrobatic saves in the tournament even earned him the title of the ‘Indian Spider Man’.
It would not even be too far-fetched to say that Paul was the best Indian player on show in Qatar despite young Chhetri’s two goals.
The Tata Football Academy (TFA) graduate’s showing is not the only time Indian custodians have impressed at the Asian Cup. In the 1984 edition held in Singapore, it was the turn of the legendary Atanu Bhattacharya to hold fort for India against Asia’s heavyweights.
The script was similar to 2011 with India suffering defeats against hosts Singapore, China and the UAE in the group stage. Despite conceding a total of seven goals in those three games, Bhattacharya stood tall for India at the back and earned rave reviews for his displays. The Bengal native’s most commendable performance came against Iran where India became the only team in the competition to hold the Asian giants to a goalless draw.
His eye-catching displays in Singapore saw Bhattacharya named in the Asia All-Star XI for whom he played two games against Hungary’s World Cup squad of 1986.
In the UAE, it will be Gurpreet’s turn to have his moment under the spotlight and it will be up to him to follow in the footsteps of Bhattacharya and Paul. With the Blue Tigers squaring up against opponents of higher quality in the Asian Cup, a siege to the Indian goal at some point is inevitable.
The Bengaluru FC custodian has already got a glimmer of things to come in the 0-0 stalemate in the international friendly against China. There, the 26-year-old was more than equal to the task by continuously thwarting the Chinese forwards in front of their home fans.
Though that was a commendable result for India, it was still a friendly and the real acid test will come now in the UAE. In all probability, the goalkeeper’s position might turn out to be the most crucial for India in the tournament.
It will now be up to Gurpreet or even Amrinder Singh and Vishal Kaith to show whether they can sink or swim when the siege starts.