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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Tokyo Olympics: Can the Indian hockey teams reach the knockouts?

If one ignores the margin of defeat against Australia, results of the men's team have been on expected lines. They won a close encounter against New Zealand to begin with, and beat Spain in convincing fashion.

Written by Tushar Bhaduri , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
July 28, 2021 8:34:33 pm
India's Dilpreet Singh (L) scores the sole goal during the Summer Olympics 2020 Pool A Hockey match between India and Australia, in Tokyo, Sunday, July 25, 2021. (Photo: PTI)

Despite the thrashing at the hands of Australia, men remain in the race but could face one of the European heavyweights in the last-8. Indian women have it tougher.

How has the Indian men’s team fared in the first three pool games?

If one ignores the margin of defeat against Australia, India’s results have been on expected lines. They won a close encounter against New Zealand to begin with, and beat Spain in convincing fashion. Sandwiched between them was the 1-7 thrashing at the hands of Australia, which brought back memories of similar hammerings in years gone by.

The top four teams from a pool of six go through to the quarterfinals and barring a complete meltdown, India should get there easily without the goal difference setback against Australia coming into the equation.

What do Manpreet Singh & Co need to do in their remaining two pool games?

India face defending gold medallists Argentina on Thursday, followed by hosts Japan on Friday. The South Americans were surprise champions at Rio 2016, and going by their results in Tokyo, India should be confident going into the encounter. The Argentines have only had a 2-1 victory over winless Japan and were beaten 5-2 by the Aussies. They drew 1-1 with Spain, whom India dispatched 3-0.

Japan are a much improved team in recent times, and are Asian Games gold medallists for a reason. But playing at home in front of empty stands is not much of an advantage, even though they will be familiar with conditions. They have a solitary point from a 2-2 draw with New Zealand.

India should be aiming for two convincing victories to enter the knockout stages with high confidence.

Where can India finish in the pool and how does it affect their medal prospects?

Going by early form, the Australians seem on a mission. They will be hard to catch at the top, so India should realistically target second place in the Pool A.

However, finishing second to fourth may not make much difference to the difficulty factor. In cross-over quarterfinals, the top finisher in one group will play the fourth-placed team in the other. The second-placed team in one pool will face the side finishing third in the other.

Pool B is inundated with top European teams. As of now, world champions Belgium are on top, followed by Germany, the Netherlands and Great Britain. Barring any major upsets in Pool B, India will be up against one of these powerhouses. These teams have regularly been involved at the business end of big tournaments, and frequently finish on the podium. There will be no scope for any error on India’s part in the quarter-finals.

How has the Indian women’s team fared so far?

The scheduling has not been kind to Rani & Co. They faced the Netherlands, Germany and Great Britain — the three medallists from the Rio Olympics — in their first three matches. Not only have India lost all three games, they have a negative goal difference of nine.

Under Dutch coach Sjoerd Marijne, the Indian team has improved a lot and are much fitter and stronger, but there is still a significant gap to be bridged before they match the best sides in the world on a regular basis.

Does the Indian women’s team still have a realistic chance of making the knockouts?

India are currently in fifth spot in Pool A and realistically, can only target fourth place. Their two remaining matches are against Ireland and South Africa. The latter, like India, have lost their first three matches and are below India on the points table only on goal difference (-10 to -9).

Ireland, however, are no pushovers. They were the runners-up at the most recent World Cup in 2018, where they defeated India twice – 1-0 in the pool stage and in the quarterfinals via a penalty shootout. Not only will India have to win both their remaining matches, they will have to redress their abysmal goal difference too.

Who will India face if they somehow make the last eight?

The top team in the other group, at the moment, is Australia after three consecutive wins, with Argentina there as well. Things are much closer there as it seems any of the top four sides – including New Zealand and Spain – can beat each other on any given day.

New Zealand beat Argentina, considered a powerhouse in women’s hockey, 3-0 but lost 2-1 to Spain. In the unlikely scenario of India advancing, they will most likely face the Aussies.

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