Ireland have never really been a thorn in India’s flesh but they’ve been a tricky side. With nothing to lose, the Green Machines have often come out all guns blazing and in those carefree performances, given a scare to a team or two.
So to open campaign against Ireland was never going to be easy for India even though rankings and history suggested a different story – especially since opening-match jitters have traditionally got the better of India in big tournaments. The fact that this was India’s first win in an opening match of the Olympics since Sydney 2000 is an indication of how crucial this was.
It nearly did again on Saturday. India were cruising along with a 2-0 lead but went on a meltdown mode and almost surrendered their lead before just about managing to eke out a 3-2 win. All goals were from penalty corners for India and even though they looked extremely dangerous when moving forward, they were equally fragile at the back, once again relying on PR Sreejesh to bail them out.
India’s next opponents are Germany and they won’t be as forgiving as Ireland. Against the reigning Olympic champions, India’s defensive structure, which looked iffy today, will be tested even further.
But a win in the opening match would put Roelant Oltmans’ in good stead. Here are a few takeaways from the opening match:
One of the hallmarks of this Indian team since the previous Olympics has been its ability to catch the opposition off guard by launching counter-attacks at breakneck speed. The transition is fluid and every player seems to know the position of his teammate. Consequently, the ball moves swiftly from one stick to another and India are able to enter the attacking third within seconds. Ireland were repeatedly found out of shape due to India’s quick breaks and playing Sardar Singh up front helped in ensuring the momentum wasn’t broken in the midfield.
Dropped as a captain, Sardar looked to be playing with a lot more freedom and also took a couple of major calls with respect to decision review. It helped India win a penalty corner early on and eventually took the lead via VR Raghunath from the one that followed. The pace of India’s attacks never dropped, barring the fourth quarter where India played for time.
Use of flanks
India have the lightening-quick SV Sunil on one flank and Devinder Walmiki, Nikkin Thimmaiah on the other. Their strategy looked clear: play the ball to the men on the wings, make darting runs from wide and make the use of open spaces left by the Irish defenders who weren’t able to track down. It worked as India repeatedly entered the Irish ‘D’ using the flanks and they were also able to switch wings effectively. Manpreet Singh revelled in the role of playing the link man between the defence and attack. For most of the match, Ireland were simply hanging on. Despite all their dominance, though, India did little in the final third to put the result beyond doubt. Indian forwards were not in the right position to tap in the crosses that were played from the wings and they generally had a off day.
By attacking from wide positions, India often entered the Irish ‘D’ from the baseline, which did not give them a direct look at goal. They instead went for the defenders’ foot and succeeded on several occasions – six to be precise. Out of those six penalty corners, India converted three, with Raghunath scoring the opener in 15th minute while Rupinderpal Singh beating Ireland goalkeeper David Harte twice in 27th and 49th minutes. Harte is one of the best goalkeepers in the world at present and was named International Hockey Federation’s goalkeeper of the year 2015. Beating him thrice from set pieces would give India confidence but German, Dutch and Argentine rushers won’t give Indian flickers as much time to release their shots.
Not sure if Oltmans will be entirely happy with the way his defence played. In the last five minutes of the first quarter, Ireland had their tales up and pushed India deep into their half. The defenders panicked. India are playing two very young players in the defence – Harmanpreet Singh and Surender Kumar. Their inexperienced showed at times. Experienced players like Raghunath and Rupinderpal too weren’t impressive either. Sreejesh was often left cleaning up the mess created by the men in front of him and even though he was the hero once again on Saturday, it will be too much to expect the same in every match. India have taken pride in maintaining proper defensive structure. But that went for a toss each time Ireland moved forward, especially in the second half when they gave India a scare in the final moments.