India football team goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu feels coach Stephen Constantine's 'perform or perish' policy is the reason for the national team's recent string of four wins on the trot.
India made mincemeat of much-higher ranked Puerto Rico in an international friendly on September 3, sweeping aside their rivals 4-1. This was the first time the 152nd ranked country got the better of a higher-ranked side since the Nehru Cup win against Cameroon in 2012.
"Under Constantine, no one has a guaranteed place. There is back-up for every playing position and we all know we cannot take our position for granted," Sandhu told IANS in a telephonic interview.
Citing the example of Jackichand Singh, who excelled on the right channel of India's attacking third in a 4-3-3 formation, Sandhu added: "He was not a regular not long ago. Now whenever he is given a chance he gives his all.
"That is the case with all of us. We are always on our toes. One mistake and we know we could be relegated to the bench."
Having beaten Laos in their double leg playoff for the AFC Asian Cup 2019 qualification and then blanking Bhutan 3-0 in an unofficial friendly, Constantine's charges have now won four matches in a row, scoring 14 goals and conceding just two.
Puerto Rico were the best movers in the FIFA ladder in July, climbing from 158 to 112. But not even six months ago in March, the CONCACAF team languished at 170, while India stood 10 rungs above them at 160.
Moreover, the players of the debt-ridden island state had arrived in Mumbai on Friday with key players and their first team coach missing for the tie.
Sandhu is unfazed by such facts.
"They are an improved team as their rankings show. Off-field issues are not my concern. To me, my team played well and we deserved to win. Having said that, we all know where to draw the line and what our goal is.
"This is not a tournament that we won. We need to keep our foot on the ground and look to pick up the positives from this match. The Asian Cup qualifiers are our top priority," said Sandhu, who became one of the youngest captains to lead the national side when he was given the mantle against Puerto Rico. Jo Paul Ancheri, for the record, was India's youngest captain.
"It is always a top feeling to lead your country. Stephen called me to his room before a press meet I was scheduled to attend. I thought Subrata-bhai (Subrata Pal) will play ahead of me as I was coming off an injury. But I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I will be given the captain's armband," he said.
Sandhu, who plays for Norwegian club Stabaek FC, is the first Indian to play in a Europa League playoff game. The 24-year old could not complete the match, injuring his finger in the first half itself. The recuperation took some time, but the tall custodian said he was adamant to be fit before the Puerto Rico game.
"I worked so hard to be fit for this game. I knew I had to play one game in Norway before coming here. I am glad I could do that."
(Debayan Mukherjee can be contacted at email@example.com)