Is this your best chance to beat Germany, coach? The typically smiling Roelant Oltmans frowned. “They are, what, the Olympic champions? Eight times Champions Trophy winners?” he asked rhetorically. “It should answer your question.”
Oltmans was merely showing respect to India’s opening match opponent, which they have earned over all these years. But deep down, he and his players would know this is indeed the best chance they have to record a third win against the mighty Germans in this calendar year.
Not just because Germany have come to Bhubaneswar with a highly depleted squad, but also because the Indian team itself is riding high on confidence. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that India have tasted more success in the last two months than the previous two decades put together. They won the Asian Games gold medal in October and followed it up with a first-ever test series win over Australia. And in the two practice matches they’ve played so far, they’ve looked quite sturdy as well.
However, the Champions Trophy, which gets underway here on Saturday, will be a litmus test for the high-flying Indians. Oltmans stood like a shadow as the players went through the penalty corner drills for nearly 30 minutes, mainly focusing on variations. In VR Raghunath, Rupinderpal Singh and Gurjinder Singh, India have three short corner specialists in their 18-man squad. It’s an area where the team has struggled against the well-organised European and Australian defences. But the return of Rupinderpal to training after skipping Thursday’s session came as encouraging news for the team.
Sardar Singh too took part in the entire training session but he looked in discomfort while sprinting. The India captain had quelled concerns over his availability minutes before stepping on to the turf, tweeting that he will fight hard to be fit for Saturday’s match. But Oltmans chose to wait till Saturday afternoon before taking a call on his fitness. “He looked quite good today(on Friday). We will have to see the reaction of today’s session on his body and will decide on his participation tomorrow (Saturday) before the match,” Oltmans said.
By their own lofty standards, Germany have had a dismal 2014. An under-strength German side could manage just a disappointing seventh place finish at the World League final, where they were beaten twice by India. That was followed by an even more disappointing sixth place finish at the World Cup in The Hague.
The results forced their coach Markus Weise to hold a crisis talk with his senior players before the Champions Trophy, which resulted in many of them being dropped. “In the months following the World Cup there has been a thorough analysis of our current situation. I have spoken to all the key players about their next career steps. This process is still running and it will be interesting to see where it takes us,” he said.
Consequently, the German squad is among the most inexperienced in the tournament, featuring eight players aged under 25 – most of whom were a part of last year’s junior World Cup – three debutants and just six players who’ve played in the Olympics and the World Cups. In Moritz Fuerste and Tobias Hauke, they have the two most recent FIH player of the year award winners — 2012 and 2013 respectively — along with 20-year-old Christopher Ruhr, who was FIH’s young player of the year for 2013.
Such is the format that all four teams from the pool will proceed to next week’s quarterfinals regardless of the results in the group phase. However, a win will be crucial for India to ensure a higher finish and in the process, avoid playing tougher opponents from Pool A in the quarters. In the previous edition two years ago, India finished at the top of their pool – ahead of Germany – and went on to finish fourth in the elite eight-nation tournament.
As India’s standard 90-minute training session concluded on Friday, the giant screen displayed ‘Ind 4-0 Ger’. The technicians might have merely being testing the controls. But as the team huddled around Oltmans, they would be secretly hoping the prophecy comes true.
There was a partial relief in the Indian camp with the return of Sardar Singh and Rupinderpal Singh to training on Friday. Both had skipped Thursday’s session – Sardar due to a calf problem and Rupinderpal because of illness. However, Oltmans said he would take a final call on Sardar’s fitness before the match on Saturday.
India spent most time practising penalty corners on Friday. Interim coach Roelant Oltmans has selected three drag-flickers in his squad – VR Raghunath, Rupinderpal Singh and Gurjinder Singh – in an attempt to improve India’s conversion record. India have struggled to score from set pieces against well-organised European and Australian defences. That may prove to be the deciding factor.
Germany’s is one of the most inexperienced squads. Eleven of their players are under 25 years and most of them were a part of the junior World Cup last year, which Germany won. Their squad also comprises three debutants and just six players have played in World
The outcome of the match may well depend on how well India are able to contain Germany’s most experienced and creative midfielders Tobias Hauke and Moritz Fuerste. In absence of senior players, the onus to create chances will be on the experienced duo.
As Sardar recuperates from a calf injury, young Manpreet Singh is expected to play as the central midfielder. With Gurbaj to his right and hometown hero Bimal Lakra to his left, the trio will shoulder maximum responsibility to contain Fuerste and Hauke.
Live on Ten sports: Dec 6
Australia vs England – 12:00
Belgium vs Pakistan – 14:00
Netherlands vs Argentina – 17:30
Germany vs India – 19:30