India face Britain in crucial Olympic qualifier game
In what promises to be a high intensity battle of wits and tactics, India take on Great Britain in a crucial league match of the World Hockey Olympic qualifying tournament at the Prince of Wales Country Club here tonight.
The rival coaches of the only two unbeaten teams in this six-nation competition, Joaquim Carvalho and Jason Lee predicted a close and hard-fought match with the winner being almost certain to qualify for Sunday's final.
With only the tournament winner qualifying for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the pressure is immense on the teams to advance to the title clash.
After three matches, India top the table on goal difference, but are on par with Britain on points (nine apiece).
Britain, in particular, would have welcomed yesterday's rest day following their punishing game against hosts Chile whom they beat 4-1 after a scoreless first half.
In contrast, the Indians had a fairly comfortable ride marked by a 18-1 drubbing of Mexico.
While both coaches were optimistic of a favourable result, the Indians appear to be the favourites if only on the basis of the two victories England in last year's Champions Challenge tournament in Antwerp last year.
Thus far in this competition, there has been little to separate the two though India have scored more goals.
However, India's shaky starts against Austria and Mexico would not have gone unnoticed by the British think tank that will be plotting for early goals to wrest the initiative.
Carvalho dismissed any suggestion of weakness in the light of the four goals (three to Austria and one to Mexico) that the team conceded and attributed them to momentary slackness in the midfield and deep defence.
"I would not attach much significance to the goals scored against us, although I must concede that the Austrians had us on the backfoot when they scored in the second minute.
"But then, India's victory was never in doubt and it was just a question of our team settling down and sticking to our game plan," he said.
The Indians used the rest day for a practice session in the morning when they simulated England attacks and penalty corner drills while working out their defensive strategies.
In the afternoon, the players attended a video session where they studied Britain's matches in groups (forwards, midfielders and deep defenders).
"We have certain plans in place and we will go over them in greater detail a few hours before the game so that our plans will stay fresh in the players' minds."
If the Indians have had a fairly comfortable journey so far in the tournament, the British had to raise their game to overcome Chile.
Their eventual win was largely made possible by their experienced players, the Mantell brothers (full-back Richard and forward Simon), James Tindall, Rob Moore and Jonty Clarke with skipper Ben Hawes co-ordinating their play from midfield.
Richard Mantell and Clarke have been fairly successful at penalty corners with the former possessing a lethal drag-flick, something that the Indians are only too aware of.
As such, the Indians went through several drills to work out plans to defend penalty corners while the morning's training session also focused on shadowing the likes of Tindall, Moore, Simon Mantell and Clarke.
From India's perspective, early goals, like the four they scored in the first 20 minutes in Antwerp during the bronze medal play-off against Britain, are an absolute must if they hope to counter the challenge.
Keeping this in mind, the Indians went flat out against Mexico to get into groove and rhythm.
The arrival of forward Roshan Minz last night has further strengthened the forward-line that needs to provide ample cushion in the event of a strong British challenge.
The plans and plotting notwithstanding, both teams need to win tonight, for a draw could jeopardise their progress to the final. India are slated to play Chile in the last league match on Saturday after Britain meet Austria.
In the event, neither India nor Britain would like to leave anything to chance and this factor alone promises a no holds barred contest tonight.
Today's fixtures (IST):
India vs Great Britain (10.30 pm); Austria vs Mexico (2 am, Friday); Russia vs Chile (4 am, Friday).