The Indian men's national team is on a dream run, having clinched their third trophy of the year by defeating Kuwait 5-4 on penalties in the SAFF Championship final at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium, in Bengaluru, on Tuesday.

Once again, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu emerged as the hero for India, playing a crucial role in their penalty shootout victory over Kuwait in a tense final.

Bengaluru FC shot-stopper Sandhu was one of the nation's heroes in the incredible final triumph against the Middle East country. He denied Kuwait captain Khalid Hajeyah in sudden death, securing India's ninth SAFF Championship. The 31-year-old also made a significant impact in the semi-final against Lebanon, where he denied the opposing captain before Khalil Bader blasted his penalty over the crossbar.

Sandhu mentioned that he didn't have prior knowledge of the shooters against Lebanon and Kuwait, so he relied on his instinct and closely followed the taker until the last moment.

“I hadn’t even faced the players before and did not know much about them. It’s just your gut instinct. My mindset was to stay big and stay there (on the line) as late as possible, make sure I don’t make the decision of where they hit for them. Sometimes, good penalty-takers see the goalkeeper going one way and then, they just slot it on the other side. My aim was to go when the guy touches the ball with his feet and try to go to the right side,” Sandhu said in an interaction with The Indian Express.

The Indian custodian dived full-stretch to his left on both occasions, denying the captains of Lebanon and Kuwait and securing victory for his nation.

“It was just me figuring it out that they were trying to trick me by showing since they are right-footed, they might go to their left. And at the last moment, they changed (their position) and pushed it to the other side. I anticipated he’s the captain (Khaled Hajiah) so he’ll try to be smart by feigning movements. I did the same. In the second one, I faked it a little bit – showed that I might go right – but I dove on the left,” he said.

This SAFF Championship victory is special for many reasons, one of the main ones being the involvement of the supporters and the second being the competitiveness brought by the invitee teams, Lebanon and Kuwait. Their participation added an extra dimension in the latest edition of the tournament.

When asked if this was his best SAFF Championship victory, Sandhu immediately indicated his agreement saying, “Oh obviously, at least among the ones I have competed in!”

“Maybe, the 2015 edition was also very good; it was competitive. But this was even more special because of the amount of fans who turned up every single game and secondly, the competition. Having Lebanon and Kuwait accepting the invite is a big thing and it helped a lot. So, this one definitely ranks higher in terms of difficulty,” he added.

The past month has been nothing short of a dream for Indian football, considering the brand of football they played against competitive sides like Lebanon and Kuwait. The changes were evident and wouldn't have been possible without the hard work and determination of the players.

During this period, the Blue Tigers achieved impressive results against Lebanon, defeating them twice (including a victory in a penalty shootout) and drawing once. It's worth noting that Lebanon had not been beaten by the Indian team in the last 46 years.

In the previous encounter with Kuwait, India suffered a heavy defeat with a scoreline of 9-1. However, this time around, India emerged victorious against Kuwait in the shootout of the final match and also managed to secure a draw against them in the group stage.

“Everyone has seen the evolution of us working through it. Unfortunately, it took time to reach this stage but the credit goes to the coaching staff and the boys, who understood in the camp this is what we have to do,” Sandhu stated.

The shot-stopper acknowledges that securing three trophies in a calendar year is a tremendous achievement for the nation. However, he is determined not to get carried away by the success. Instead, he wants to maintain focus and concentrate on the bigger challenges that await the team in the future.

“I don’t remember the last time the national team won three trophies in a season at home. It is very motivating. This is something we should celebrate. But also keep our focus and make sure we are preparing even harder for the bigger challenges,” he said.

“And the challenges going forward will be tougher – the King’s Cup in Thailand, Merdeka Cup in Malaysia, the 2026 World Cup qualifiers and finally the AFC Asian Cup,” Sandhu added.

Sandhu echoed his head coach, Igor Stimac, who had previously stated in an interview that they would not deviate from their natural style of play when facing tougher opponents in the future.

He emphasised the importance of sticking to their natural gameplay, saying, “These are good games. We should carry the momentum and make sure we are competitive.”

“Go with the same kind of mindset – we are going to press, we want to be physical and also we want to keep the ball. Try to dominate teams who are at par with us or better than us. In that process, you win, that’s great and if you lose, you learn something,” he opined.

Ahead of the new season, Sandhu aims to stay sharp and make the most of the off-season as he heads to Norway to train with his previous club, Stabaek Fotball.

“I will be with Stabaek so obviously; a higher level of training in terms of atmosphere and the players you might be playing with. My aim is to stay sharp and not get on the slippery slope of the off-season. For me, it’s about having an edge. I am not getting any younger so I have to keep pushing my limits so I can be Sunil Chhetri, physically. I just want to keep reinventing myself,” the custodian commented.