After two unconvincing wins, the Indian side will face their first major test when they take on arch-rivals Pakistan in a much-awaited Pool A clash of the Hockey World League semifinals on Friday.
The showstopper encounter between Asian Games champions India and Champions Trophy silver medallists Pakistan has raised the stakes in the diamond city of Antwerp. The misfiring Indians enjoy the luxury of having already qualified for the 2016 Olympic Games, but Pakistan have promised to go all-out into attack in Friday's sub-continental contest. For both India and Pakistan, a victory in this preliminary pool match will pave the way for a favourable quarterfinal draw.
Friday's match is also the first encounter between the sub-continental hockey rivals since their clash in the tense, incident-marred Champions Trophy semifinals in Bhubaneswar, where some gestures during on-field celebrations by the victorious Pakistani team led to a few suspensions. There remains some palpable tension between the teams over that incident, but both sides will seek to showcase the attractive sub-continental style of hockey.
Going into the contest, both India and Pakistan's strikers have been erratic and wayward. India have won their first two outings against France (3-2) and Poland (3-0) but Paul van Ass' wards were far from impressive. Pakistan, on the other hand, managed to beat Poland 2-1 before being outplayed by Australia. Australia hammered Pakistan 6-1 last evening after being 1-1 level at half-time.
India captain Sardar Singh said even though their Rio Olympic berth is secured, they want to take this opportunity produce some positive results ahead of the World League Finals, to be played at home at the end of the year. "We want to win against Pakistan ahead of the game against World champions Australia the next day," said Sardar.
For India's new chief coach Paul van Ass to be a part of an Indo-Pak contest comes as a completely new experience. "It's going to be my first experience of an India-Pakistan hockey encounter. But during the 2010 World Cup in Delhi, I saw the excitement it causes," said van Ass, a former Dutch national coach.