India’s resilient defence will be put to test when they take on world champions Australia in the final round robin match of the Champions Trophy at the Lee Valley Park in London on Thursday. India, who are placed second on the points table, are chasing their first-ever spot in the final of Champions Trophy. Roelant Oltmans’ side has shown signs of improvement in the last few tournaments, with the team’s defensive structure standing out. In the absence of Birendra Lakra and Rupinderpal Singh, the young defenders have shown surprising composure and stubbornness in the four group stage matches so far.
The young defence, however, will be put under pressure by Australia who have already booked a place in the final. Australia have generally recorded wins by huge margins against India. In the previous encounter between the two teams, at the Azlan Shah Cup two months ago, Australia beat India 5-1 in the group stage and 4-0 in the final.
However, India will draw inspiration from their victory in the Test series in Raipur against the Kookaburras, a rare moment of success against the world champions. India’s most notable performance against Australia recently was in the 2015 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup where striker Nikkin Thimmaiah’s hat-trick spurred them to victory, but that was an experimental Australian team.
Ahead of the Olympic Games, Australia have fielded a very strong side, but are in a dilemma over penalty corner shooter Chris Ciriello’s fitness.
“The match against Australia is a very tough outing. We have to produce our best performance to put up a good contest,” said Indian coach Roelant Oltmans, who is happy to see the Indians stay in the hunt for a medal. “A medal at the Champions Trophy was the target we set ourselves when we set off for London. I’m happy that our game has improved with every tournament,” said Oltmans.
Australia are heading the round-robin league standings with 10 points from four outings, followed by India on seven from four matches. A victory over Australia would put India into the final of the Champions Trophy, something they have not achieved so far, but even a draw could boost their prospects of making the title encounter.
Great Britain and Belgium are the other teams that can win their last league match to edge out India from the final. These two teams will clash in the last league engagement and will have the luxury of playing after the Australia-India fixture. Britain are currently on five points and Belgium are on four. If Australia defeat India, hosts Britain will just need a win over Belgium to overtake India on points, but Belgium too can finish second on goal difference if they prevail in this match.
Belgium’s hope rests on improving their goal difference and wait to see if India concede too many goals to Australia. A draw between Britain and Belgium would clear India’s passage to the final. If India are able to keep the Australian strikers at bay and do not concede too many goals, they can still finish second in the league standings despite a loss to the world’s top-ranked side. In this case, they will be keenly watching the match featuring Belgium and Britain.
India’s only previous medal in the history of the Champions Trophy was a bronze they won way back in 1982 at Amsterdam. To be able to match Australia, the Indian defenders will need to polish their act and the strikers have to improve their finishing.
In Tuesday’s 2-1 victory over South Korea that kept them India in the medal contention, the strikers repeatedly lost their way after breaking into rival territory. “We’ll have to put up a much better exhibition of hockey. Yesterday, the strikers were more excited than needed,” said Oltmans.
Irrespective of having already clinched a place in the final, Australia coach Graham Reid is not going to take the foot off the pedal. “Do you expect any Australian coach to do that?” Reid said when asked if the Australians may play a relaxed game in their last league outing. “The Indians seem to be playing their best hockey for a while,” said Reid as he made plans for the match.
Reid is not sure of fielding Ciriello in Thursday’s match, allowing his crack shooter adequate rest with the Olympic Games less than two months away.
India, meanwhile, will depend on vice-captain SV Sunil once again to deliver. Sunil has been relishing the responsibility and has been one of the consistent performers in the tournament. He has even scored crucial goals. However, the form of goalkeeper PR Sreejesh will be crucial if India hope to win the tie.
Australia have scored second-most number of goals in the tournament and although the Indian defence has looked solid, it has conceded soft goals. Against Australia, Oltmans will hope the young back-line will perform once again.
(With PTI inputs)