Harmanpreet Singh of India celebrates with teammates after scoring(REUTERS) PREMIUM
Harmanpreet Singh of India celebrates with teammates after scoring(REUTERS)

Tokyo 2020: History beckons as India gear up to face Great Britain in men's hockey

Already through to the last eight by cementing the second spot in Group A, India downed hosts and 2018 Asian Games champions Japan 5-3 in their fifth and final pool match at Tokyo’s Oi Hockey Stadium.
By Sandip Sikdar, New Delhi
UPDATED ON AUG 02, 2021 08:16 AM IST

They say that in hockey, the tournament starts in the quarter-finals. If that is the case, let’s get the news out of the way—India will play Great Britain on Sunday for a last four spot, something that has not been achieved since the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which they eventually won for their eighth and last gold.

Now to Friday’s match.

Already through to the last eight by cementing the second spot in Group A, India downed hosts and 2018 Asian Games champions Japan 5-3 in their fifth and final pool match at Tokyo’s Oi Hockey Stadium.

The game was inconsequential but gave India the opportunity to build on their winning momentum, especially after the 1-7 humiliation—their worst loss in the Olympics—against world No.1 Australia. India have regrouped to win three back-to-back matches, even dominating defending champions Argentina.

“It’s been a phenomenal recovery after that dreadful game (vs Australia),” said former goalkeeper Ashish Ballal, a key member of India’s victorious 1998 Asian Games squad. Skipper Manpreet Singh and the players have quickly regained the winning spirit. “It’s fantastic to see a spirited team playing all out. They look fresh,” Ballal said over the phone from Bengaluru.

Gurjant Singh (17th, 56th), Harmanpreet Singh (13th), Shamsher Singh (34th) and Nilakanta Sharma (51st) scored for India. With 61% possession, Graham Reid’s boys made 32 penetrations to Japan’s 10, though they converted only five of their 17 shots, a familiar story in the tournament.

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Missing the finishing touch has often hurt India. It did even against Australia, though they have a young forward line. India chief coach Graham Reid said: “Better performance tonight. First-quarter was pretty good. We lost a little bit after they scored. In the second half, we came out and regained control. We really tried playing at a much higher tempo, to (a level) we are going to need on Sunday. We mixed that up pretty well and played a controlled game. Good to get a couple of field goals... we still need to get better at those outcomes in the circle.”

Sreejesh’s role

Despite Japan scoring through Kenta Tanaka (19th min), Kota Watanabe (33rd) and Kazuma Murata (59th) on Friday, India goalkeeper PR Sreejesh has been a sensation in the goal. Sreejesh, playing in his third Olympics, has been an outstanding motivator, constantly sending out instructions to the players, screaming to communicate during the game.

Some of his saves, especially against Spain, were crucial because if those had been been converted, the team’s morale would have been crushed. “Sreejesh plays like a youngster, I’m happy he’s contributing so much,” said Ballal. “He’s present when the team needs him. He’s a strong personality, such a motivating factor.”

Next up are Great Britain, who finished third in Group B but significantly drew 2-2 against favourites and world champions Belgium on Friday. Also, the knockouts are a different ball game where a single mistake inside the circle can be punished. India will have to make sure they don’t concede penalty corners, stay sharp and make systematic attacks to up the conversion rate. It will be vital for India to play a percentage game against the 1988 Seoul champions.

Women win too

For the first time since 1980 Moscow, India women’s hockey team won a match at the Olympic Games, a stunning 1-0 verdict against Ireland, the 2018 World Cup runners-up. After losing their first three Group A matches, to Netherlands, Germany and Great Britain, Navneet Kaur’s 57th minute deflection of skipper Rani Rampal’s reverse shot clinched their first win of Tokyo 2020, keeping hopes alive for the quarter-finals. India will need to beat South Africa on Saturday in their fifth and final pool match to keep alive any hopes of reaching the quarter-finals.

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