After an eight-year break, India renew their quest for the elusive ninth gold medal when they take on the Netherlands in their opening Group A fixture of the Olympic men's hockey competition in London on Monday.
The Indians, on a comeback after failing to qualify for the 2008 Olympics,
face a difficult task of even reaching the semifinals, much less winning a medal, as they have, besides the Dutch, defending champions Germany, Korea, New Zealand and Belgium to contend with.
As such, there is no respite for the Indians who last beat the Netherlands in the Olympics back in 1984 and Germany in 1968. The Kiwis have always been difficult opponents while it will be a lottery against Korea and a test of firepower against the Belgians.
The expectations this time are sky high, thanks to the undue hype over India's qualification to the Olympics after a string of victories against weak opponents in New Delhi earlier this year. The players were showered with goodies as if they had won the gold medal and it was left to coach Michael Nobbs to keep things in perspective.
A bronze medal at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup tournament in Ipoh, Malaysia, where the Kiwis won the title, triggered another round of euphoria, but later, defeats against the higher ranked Australia, Germany and Great Britain at a test event in London showed India their place in the hockey hierarchy.
Thus, going into the opening game against double gold medallists (1996, 2000) the Netherlands, India will have to do most of the running, given the all-round strength of their opponents.
The Dutch, though without their penalty corner specialist Taeke Taekema who was a victim of the pre-Olympics shakedown, still boast of an enviable line-up with Teun de Nooijer, playing in his fifth Olympics and one of the greatest modern day players, conducting the show in his twin role as a playmaker and scorer.
As in the case of the Indian team, the Dutch squad too has plenty of new Olympic faces, but with sufficient international exposure that has polished the many rough edges that the side had when coach Paul van Ass took charge two summers ago.
Ideally, a draw with the Dutch and the Germans, and full points in the other three games should put them in contention for the semi-finals, but it is easier said than done.
Since the 2004 Olympics where India last played in these quadrennial Games, the team has participated in just three truly world-level competitions, the World Cup in 2006 (11th) and 2010 (8th) besides the 2005 Champions Trophy (6th) in Chennai.
The performances in these tournaments only emphasised the point that India had a lot of catching up to do and the situation has not changed much in the intervening period.
Looking ahead to Monday's clash against the Dutch, the Indians would need to be at the top of their game and will have to keep faith in their traditional attacking style of play that Nobbs has encouraged.
India's chances would largely depend on the ability, alertness and structure of the deep defence to mark the Dutch players whose tactic of switching positions can cause confusion. Perhaps, a zonal defence rather than man-to-man marking could serve India better.
With midfielder Ignace Tirkey one of the only two players of 2004 Olympics vintage (the other being drag-flick specialist Sandeep Singh) and defender Sardara Singh back to full fitness, the Indian team is without any injury issues and Nobbs would be needing all of them and more against the rugged Dutch.
With so many players from both sides making their Olympic debut, nerves would dictate the early exchanges and the team that takes initiative and settles down first will come out on top. Even otherwise, the work is cut out for India as they pursue another Olympic dream.
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