On Friday, India men’s hockey team will face Olympic champions and World No 1 Argentina in the semi-finals of the Hockey World League Final. Predicting India’s performance is next to impossible given the journey they had in the tournament.
‘Inconsistent’ is the perfect word to sum up India. If India are brilliant on day one, they will put up a lackluster performance the next day. After a winless run in the group stage of the tournament, India stunned World No 3 Belgium in the quarter-finals. After an impressive 1-1 draw against Australia in their tournament opener, the hosts went from bad to worse, losing 2-3 and 0-2 against England and Germany, respectively. However, against Belgium they showed their fearless approach that stunned many.
Argentina, who had a similar journey like India in the group stage where they finished with one point, also registered their first win of the tournament against England. Argentina might be the reigning Olympic champions, but the Indians have better head-to-head record against them.
India and Argentina have so far played 46 games against each other, out of which India have won 26, lost 16 and drawn four. In fact, India were the only team that defeated Argentina to their way to gold medal triumph in 2016 Olympics. In Rio, the Indians defeated them 2-1 in the pool stages.
The unpredictably about the Indian team might hurt Argentines ahead of Friday’s semi-final clash. “India are a tough team to beat. You can’t predict how they will come out in a game and that was visible against Belgium yesterday. They beat the most impressive team of the tournament,” Argentina’s drag-flick specialist Gonzalo Peillat said after the Los Leones beat England 3-2 in their quarter-final match. “India are good in counter-attack. So, we have to be very careful,” he added.
A fitting test
The Indians played attacking, fast-paced hockey and ticked all boxes against Belgium, stunning them 3-2 in the shoot-out. However, even against Belgium, India lacked in their finishing. Indian strikers, SV Sunil and Mandeep Singh missed some clear shots at goal during the clash against Belgium. Sunil, in particular, missed two golden opportunities and he will look to make amends against Argentina.
The Indian midfield led by talismanic Manpreet Singh had a good tournament so far, as it held the team together. “It feels great that India has entered their second ever semi-final of the Hockey World League Final after a breath-taking quarter final yesterday where we beat Belgium. Look forward to the semi-finals and a great performance there from the team,” said Manpreet, the Red Bull athlete.
The defence too was outstanding. But the backline at times fumbled under pressure and conceded some soft goals and gave away easy penalty corners.
They cannot afford to commit the same mistakes against an attacking Argentine side.
Need to score
India’s chief coach Sjoerd Marijne said his wards will have to dish out a similar performance as against Belgium if not better, if they hope to tame Argentina. “(Against Belgium) our defending was better. We created chances and scored off our penalty corners. Against Germany (in pool match) we had same shots at goal and more penalty corners, also against England and Australia. But if you don’t score, things look bad. We knew we have to score. We got four penalty corners against Belgium and scored. When we had the ball we were calmer,” said Marijne.
“We have improved in structured defending. We left small spaces in defence and made it difficult for teams to enter our circle,” he added.
Having finished third in the last edition of the tournament in 2015 in Raipur, the Indians also have a chance to go one step up with a win on Friday.