Indian hockey team kick off Olympic build-up against Russia
The hosts are the highest ranked team in this tournament and favourites to win the title and clinch one of the two berths for the Olympic qualifiers at the year end.Updated: Jun 06, 2019, 01:35 IST
The last time India played Russia in an FIH tournament, Dilip Tirkey was still the bulwark of the defence, Sardar Singh was manning the midfield, Prabodh Tirkey was captain and Prabhjot Singh, Rajpal Singh and Deepak Thakur were part of the frontline. That was at the World Hockey Olympic Qualifiers in Santiago, Chile in early 2008 and India had cantered to an 8-0 win.
As the two teams meet on the opening day of the Men’s FIH Series Finals here after an 11-year hiatus on Thursday, only Sardar Singh is involved, as a selector, while the rest have retired. And there is a possibility the result of Thursday’s clash will be the same as in 2008 as India have gone from strength to strength and are now ranked fifth in the world.
The hosts are the highest ranked team in this tournament and favourites to win the title and clinch one of the two berths for the Olympic qualifiers at the year end.
Russia have nothing to lose, and even in the worst possible scenario can look to gain the experience of playing against higher ranked teams and ranking points, for they have not participated in such a tournament since 2008.
While India will hope to take charge in Pool A, South Africa, the second highest ranked team, will take on United States in the tournament opener in an early morning match. USA, besides Japan and South Africa, will be contention for the semi-final spots from Pool B, and the winner on Thursday will improve their chances of topping the group.
Playing against a team ranked 22, 17 spots below them, has its own danger as the players tend to get complacent and take things easy. That’s what the Indian team management has to guard against, not only versus Russia but also other teams in this tournament.
Skipper Manpreet Singh agreed. “We don’t know a lot about these teams; we have not seen them much and don’t know how they play. We can’t afford to underestimate any team as they can cause an upset; it all depends on how a team performs on that particular day. The team that capitalises on its chances will win,” he said.
Manpreet pointed to the Russian defence as their strong point. “Recently they played with Belgium (World Cup winner and world No 1) and allowed them only one penalty corner, which proves their defence is very strong. We will have to capitalise on whatever chances we get,” he added.
The Indian skipper picked the right area to focus as conversion of chances has been the bane of this team—be it field goals or penalty corners. The team has focussed on these aspects after the Australia tour and Manpreet is confident of a better performance from his boys.
The selectors have bolstered the attack and defence after the Australia tour by bringing in seasoned forward Ramandeep Singh and defenders Varun Kumar and Amit Rohidas, who will join Harmanpreet Singh as drag-flickers.
Though India may not be tested much by Russia, they will have to try and test some of the things they have been working on before they face tougher opponents.
Japan coach Siegfried Aikman said in an interview that India are expected to top their pool to qualify for the semi-finals. The real competition will start after that.
Manpreet agreed the semi-finals will be crucial. “It will be crucial because if you lose, you are out of the competition. One missed chance could prove costly in such matches as the pressure increases. We are taking each opponent as dangerous and hope to give our best in each match,” he said.
While India and its supporters will look to improve on the huge win over Russia in the 2008 tournament in Chile, they will also have to bear in mind that India failed to qualify for Beijing Olympics from that tournament after losing to Great Britain in the final.