Tonight, India will play its biggest match in nearly two decades. Roelant Oltmans’ side meets Belgium in the quarterfinals of the Rio Games, and a win will mean India will enter the semifinals of the Olympics for the first time since the 1980 Moscow Games. The closest the national team has come to reaching the last four was at the Sydney Olympics.
India have given a good account of themselves so far — barring the last league encounter against Canada — but Belgium are a completely different prospect. They have been a thorn in India’s flesh in the last few tournaments, playing defensively strong hockey, which India has found extremely tough to deal with.
In the last few encounters, Belgium have beaten India by the narrowest of margins – either 1-0 or 2-1. Their strategy has been simple – score an early goal and close the doors on India, marking the forwards closely and not allowing an inch of extra space in the midfield. Since their players are technically gifted, Belgians make few errors. But that doesn’t make them a defensive side.
The Red Lions are one of the most fluent attacking outfits. At the Games so far, they have scored 21 goals in the five group stage matches while conceded just two. In the process, they’ve eased past world champions Australia, European giants Britain, New Zealand and hosts Brazil. Their only defeat came against an inspired New Zealand, who have defied expectations themselves.
After years of showing promise, the golden generation of Belgian hockey finally seems to be living up to its potential. So India will have to bring their A game to the table, and perhaps even more. The Asian Games gold medallists have been playing some of the finest hockey in recent years but the defeat to Holland and draw against lowly Canada have hampered their momentum.
But more than the uninspiring performance against Canada the other day, the bigger concern for coach Oltmans and rest of the team would have been the fitness of forward SV Sunil. During one of his dashes to Canada’s half, Sunil couldn’t apply brakes and slammed into the advertising board, hurting his wrist in the process. Later in the day, he spent nearly two hours at a hospital undergoing scans. His teammates waited nervously at the village for the reports.
Finally, late on Friday night, it was revealed that Sunil would be fit for the quarterfinal. His presence will be crucial for India as he is one of the few with the ability to run and dodge past the sturdy Belgian defence and raid their ‘D’. India’s right flank looked considerably weakened against Canada, which under-lined the team’s dependence on Sunil’s speedy runs on the wings. Luckily for them, he has been declared fully fit for the encounter.
One of the hallmarks of India’s performance has been the smart use of the wings and clean tackling. The injection of pace from the flanks – with Sunil on one side and Devinder Walmiki and Nikkin Thimmaiah on the other – has troubled the likes of reigning Olympic champions Germany and even Netherlands. But one gets a feeling that India’s fate would be decided on how well they are able to defend against an extremely sharp Belgian attack, with Tom Boon, Tanguy Cosyns and Felix Denayer being the key masterminds.
Defensive discipline would be the key for India. They have been able to maintain great defensive shape in the group stage, another new aspect of the team that was struggling in this area till a year ago. But even though they have played well for majority of the match, India have crumbled under pressure, especially in the final quarter, in every match they have played. Goalkeeper PR Sreejesh has been put under excessive pressure, and the way they’ve been playing, Belgium are best placed to exploit this shortcoming of the Indian team.
The players looked jaded against Canada after playing high-intensity matches the entire week. But the rest day on Saturday would have rejuvenated them. For Oltmans will want his side to be at its best if India are bury the ghosts of its past and enter the Olympics semifinals for the first time in 36 years.