Gurpreet Singh Sandhu turned in a player-of-the-match performance against NorthEast United FC during in Bengaluru on Wednesday, notching up nine saves in Bengaluru FC's 2-1 win. Sandhu feels all of BFC's regular season would come to nought if they are unable to do well in the playoffs, though.
"When you are playing the league, you want to finish first, but at the end of the day it doesn't matter. And that's what we learned," he said, reflecting on the 2017-18 season, when BFC finished eight points clear of second-placed Chennaiyin FC at the end of the regular season, but lost 3-2 in the final. While Sandhu had criticised the ISL's format after that loss, this year, he's looking back at that as a "lesson" on how to approach the backend of the season. "We just need to make sure we qualify as soon as possible and we have that comfort and we can think forward to the semifinal."
Wednesday's win put BFC back on top of the table, following a 1-0 loss to Mumbai City FC that had taken the latter on top on goals scored, as well as breaking BFC's sequence of 11 unbeaten games. Sandhu believes their 2018-19 form has been better than the previous season under coach Albert Roca.
"We are a very high pressing team, and our defensive line is way up the pitch and that sometimes makes it easier for good opposition like NorthEast to give us a hard time," Sandhu told ESPN. "But the brand of football we are trying to play is different from last year and I think we have done better, if you look at the numbers and the points that we have got in 13 games."
BFC were on 27 points (9 wins, 4 losses) after the first 13 games last season under Roca. This season, they're on 30 after 13 games (9 wins, 3 draws, 1 loss) under Roca's successor Carles Cuadrat. "They both want to play football. But with Carles, it has been more about safety as well. Roca didn't think much about being safe at the back," said Sandhu. "He [Roca] wanted to play even though we have pressure but with Carles it is more about 'you don't see it, you don't do it'."
With five games to go, another win could virtually put BFC beyond the reach of both Jamshedpur FC and two-time champions ATK, but Wednesday's performance would also have been a balm for Sandhu, who was in goal as India spectacularly let slip an opportunity of making the AFC Asian Cup knockouts in UAE, despite winning the first game 4-1 against Thailand. Like all his Indian teammates, the Asian Cup exit was a bitter pill to swallow for Sandhu.
"It has been difficult for sure, because I think people still talk about it. I'm pretty sure no one expected us to have points at the table. If you look at all the other groups, I think the third best team had three points and ours was the only group where we had three points but finished fourth," said Sandhu.
"So, you need to see those positives. Yes, we are disappointed that we didn't do enough but as I said, one step at a time. Once we take that in mind, we can do well even in international competitions, against bigger teams than us."