Just 24 hours back, India had conjured up a performance that had brought the proverbial roof down at the Kalinga Stadium. But the frenzy of Thursday’s emphatic win over Belgium in the quarterfinals has died down, at least within the team, as they went through their drills in front of empty stands.
“Focus. That’s what we’ve been telling each other in the group. Focus, focus, focus…” high performance director Roelant Oltmans says. He knows that if the sprightly Indians manage to keep calm heads, they stand a more than decent chance of beating Pakistan in the semifinals of the Champions Trophy on Saturday.
Oltmans also knows that against Pakistan, form and logic are thrown out of the window — especially when both the teams have had a fairytale run in tournament. Not many would’ve expected India and Pakistan to reach the medal rounds of this elite eight-nation tournament, more so after the start they had. But they’ve hit form at the right moment, making most of the second chance given by the format of the tournament.
A match-up between teams so unpredictable is always difficult to call. The outcome of the marquee last-four encounter will depend mainly on the three ‘D’s — discipline, defence and drag-flicks.
Brain over brawn
The hallmark of India’s wins over Holland and Belgium has been their disciplined performances. The key reason for back-to-back defeats against Germany and Argentina was the lack of focus and structure. The team got overwhelmed by the vociferous crowd, ending up playing to the gallery rather than sticking to the game plan. Their old habit of conceding goals just after scoring and in the dying stages returned to haunt them and the defence was routinely exposed.
Oltmans used the one-day break before the Holland match to help the team regain composure. He reinforced the need to play with brain, not brawn. Against the Dutch, the result was evident. India combined speed with skill while not losing their shape even once.
Against an equally structure-less but dangerous Pakistan side, how well India retain their shape will be a crucial factor. Especially the defence. In their quarterfinal on Thursday, Pakistan caught the Dutch napping on counter-attacks, which were quick and vicious. Their creative source in the midfield, Muhammad Waqas, initiated several attacks from the middle and the flanks while Muhammad Rizwan Senior constantly tested Dutch goalkeeper Jaap Stockmann.
They are expected to trouble the Indian back line with their defence splitting balls and runs as they did twice at the Asian Games. As has been the trend this year, the Indian team has gradually improved as the tournament has progressed. The coaching staff has managed to weed out the mistakes team committed in the early matches, mainly in the defence.
Against Belgium on Thursday, India defended in numbers, with the entire team falling back to ensure there was no free space. Gurjinder Singh and Rupinderpal Singh hardly got a tackle wrong after the initial jittery moments whereas VR Raghunath used his boulder-like frame to good use. Skipper Sardar Singh too dropped back often to bail out the defence. Oltmans stressed the need to repeat more of the same against Pakistan but warned against the speed of their counter-attacks.
The Dutchman also expects his former side to trouble India from the penalty corners. The Green Shirts used to the set-piece routine with much efficiency against the Dutch. Brothers Muhammad Imran and Muhammad Irfan scored three goals with their precise and powerful drag flicks.
Boasting of a dangerous battery of drag-flickers themselves, India will be keen to improve their penalty corner count. Against Belgium, they managed just one that was converted by Rupinderpal. India have been fortunate that in such a scenario their forwards have shown spark and scored field goals.
Akashdeep Singh’s sly runs behind the defence have reaped rewards while Manpreet Singh, SV Sunil, Dharamvir Singh and SK Uthappa have combined well to create opportunities. India’s new routine of playing in long, hard diagonal crosses inside the rival team’s defence too has worked well, with Rupinderpal, Raghunath and Gurjinder setting-up the strikers with some intelligent balls.
Pakistan may not have looked one of the most threatening sides of the tournament. Even with their quarterfinals, many have claimed that it was a case of Holland losing more than Pakistan winning the match. But India know the risk of taking Pakistan lightly. And they need not look beyond the Asian Games to gauge the threat the neighbours posses.
‘This team can write history’
Bhubhaneshwar: Such has been India’s resurgence that the usually reticent high performance director Roelant Oltmans too claimed that his side has “a 75 percent chance” of winning a medal at the Champions Trophy. The Dutchman further added that this ‘team can write history and that’s what they’re looking for’ in this eight-nation tournament.
India’s best performance in the Champions Trophy came in 1982 when they won bronze. If they beat Pakistan in the semifinal on Saturday, they will enter the final for the first time.
Oltmans said they had a ‘good chance’ of beating Pakistan. “But for that, we have to get our strategic execution right instead of emotional execution,” he said. “Against Holland, Pakistan relied on tight defence and counter-attacking and that’s exactly what I expect them to do tomorrow. That’s what we have to be careful, especially the counters.”
Pakistan coach Shahnaz Sheikh, meanwhile, said the pressure will be on India because ‘they are playing at home.’ “I have noticed this in the past that when India and Pakistan play each other, the home team is under pressure because of the crowd. The crowd here has been fantastic but that may be disadvantageous to India,” Sheikh said. “So I expect the Indians to be under pressure. However, there is no such pressure on us. We have achieved our target of finishing inside the top four. Now we are looking forward to our next target of qualifying for the final.” — ENS
India vs Pak in CT
Head-to-Head: Played 17; Pak: 11; Ind: 6; Draws: 0
Today’s Schedule: 5-8 classification
11:30 Belgium vs Holland
13:45 England vs Argentina
17:15 Germany vs Australia
19:30 India vs Pakistan