Before the Hockey World League (HWL) semi-final round began, Indian hockey goalkeeper PR Sreejesh had this to say: "For me our clash against Pakistan will be the most awaited." Well, that's coming up next.
Following two consecutive victories in the tournament, India are gearing up for clashes against arch-rivals Pakistan (on Friday) and world champions Australia (on Sunday).
India entered the tournament, where 2016 Rio Olympics berths are on offer, in a position of comfort. India qualified for the Olympics by winning the 2014 Incheon Asian Games gold, beating Pakistan in a thrilling shoot-out.
Indian midfielder Lalit Upadhyay on Wednesday said they were looking forward to their coming pool A encounters against Pakistan and Australia.
India overcame France 3-2 on Saturday before thumping Poland 3-0 on Tuesday at the Brasschaat Municipal Park.
"While we won the first two matches, the next two against Pakistan and Australia are the ones we are looking forward to," Upadhyay said in a release.
"We have been delivering as a unit and ensuring that we do not give up ball possession easily. Our target from here is to take a clean sweep in the pool phase."
The Varanasi hockey player praised teammates Devindar Sunil Walmiki, who scored one goal each against France and Poland in his debut tournament.
"His skills in the D are remarkable and the key is his reaction time. He knows how and where to hit and he does it swiftly. He will have to keep this momentum on in the upcoming matches."
Rupinder's absence hurt penalty corner conversion: coach Van Ass
India's coach Paul van Ass admits the team has faced penalty corner issues in the absence of injured drag flicker Rupinder Pal Singh.
India's penalty corner attempts made little impression in the matches against France and Poland, although stand-in shooter Manpreet Singh scored a goal in the
In three penalty corners against Poland, India came nowhere near posting a threat to the rival citadel, while Manpreet managed to place a shot into the left corner of the board out of the three penalty corners India secured in the earlier outing against France.
"We're a bit weak at the penalty corners at the moment," said van Ass. "Rupinder has not been fit and we did not play him in these two games."
Rupinder sustained an injury during the warm-up games in Antwerp, after coming in as a replacement for VR Raghunath in the originally-chosen squad.
He trained yesterday, indicating he would be ready for the next outing against Pakistan. "Yes, Rupinder will play the next game," the coach said.
Rio ticket in hand, India trying out options
Van Ass had initially left Rupinder out of the squad, deciding to include only frontline drag-flicker in Raghunath. The coach felt it was opportunity to test new strategies in set-piece execution, with other players in focus.
Sealing the Rio Olympics berth accorded the coach and team this luxury.
India could afford not to field their best squad in the HWL semifinals, which otherwise is the last chance for some teams to qualify for the Olympics.
The top 4 sides from the 10-team tournament will proceed to the HWL Final to be played in November-December in India. The top-3 teams will qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
In the past two years, India have been served well by the efficiency of drag-flickers Raghunath and Rupinder.
Raghunath is the senior of the two drag-flickers and shared the space with ace shooter Sandeep Singh before Rupinder came into the spotlight with a fine show in Malaysia four years ago.
In due course, he replaced penalty corner specialist Sandeep in the Indian line-up and his pairing with Raghunath bolstered the defence.
Van Ass has been working on having options in penalty corners. He wants the Indian team to be able to try out more set-piece options in case both key drag-flickers are missing.
He would like India to have multiple options in converting the penalty corners.