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Tokyo 2020: India take the tough route, but reach quarters

After beating defending Games champion Argentina in the group stage, India will have to beat one of Germany, Netherlands, and Great Britain to enter the men's hockey semi-finals.

Harmanpreet Singh celebrates after scoring against Argentina. (Reuters)

The cameraman wouldn’t leave Graham Reid alone.

The Indian men’s hockey team’s coach leaned on the sideboard and watched his players waste one chance after another against Olympic champions Argentina. After every miss, Reid would flail his arm and fiddle with his cap. But, with the cameraman kneeling a couple of feet away and pointing directly at him, Reid was forced to restrain himself.

After almost 10 minutes of this sequence, Reid had a polite word with the broadcaster. And after a brief conversation, the latter relented – but continued filming Reid from a different angle.

One could understand why the cameraman didn’t stop pointing at Reid. India had, till then, been so dominant that a point came halfway through the third quarter when goalkeeper PR Sreejesh crouched at the edge of India’s ‘D’ and watched the match without any worry in the world.

India were so solid that till that moment, Sreejesh didn’t even have to make a single save, and Argentina were barely able to get out of their own half. But for all the pressure, India were being wasteful and trying too hard to score, which became a source of frustration for Reid.

Eventually, India won 3-1. But not before they made things tough for themselves. After Varun Kumar broke the deadlock towards the end of the third quarter, during a period when India won seven penalty corners in the space of five minutes, they allowed their opponents back into the game right at the start of the fourth, leading to some anxious moments before a cheeky finish from a rebound by Vivek Sagar Prasad and a powerful drag-flick by Harmanpreet Singh ensured India got all three points from the game.

The win also made sure that India – after a setback against Australia, when they succumbed to their heaviest defeat at the Olympics, 7-1 – qualified for the quarterfinals. Reid’s team is placed second in Pool A behind Australia, and the top four go through to the last eight.

As things stand, India are likely to meet Britain in the quarterfinals on Sunday. But that could change on Friday, when the group stage concludes. And if Thursday was anything to go by, there will be plenty of twists before the quarterfinal line-up is confirmed.

The other pool

South Africa’s stunning 4-3 win over Germany, so far the biggest upset in hockey at these Games, has opened up Pool B. But forget the qualifying scenarios for a moment: here was a crowd-funded team, which has in the past been denied the chance to compete at the Olympics because they weren’t good enough, beating a European royalty and European Championship runner-up.

While South Africa had no chance of progressing further, India will know their quarterfinal opponents after the matches between Britain and Belgium, and Germany and the Netherlands. Belgium – who have scored 18 goals in their last two games, 9 each against South Africa and Canada – are confirmed table-toppers in Pool B while India are set to finish second in their group. It means Reid’s side will have to beat either Britain, Germany or the Netherlands to make it to their first semifinal since 1980.

In the bigger picture, India’s win over Argentina won’t matter a lot. Ultimately, it will come down to just one game – the quarterfinal. But Reid and his players will take heart from the fact that after conceding seven against Australia, they have responded with a clean sheet against Spain, and allowed just one goal against Argentina.

Harmanpreet and his defence partner Rupinderpal Singh said the team immediately had a meeting after the defeat to Australia to make sure the effects of that did not linger. “We fixed little things like, moving side-to-side in a synchronised manner. So if you see, when we are shifting flanks while defending, the entire team is moving in one direction, which leaves very little gap for our opponents to exploit,” Rupinderpal said.

Upfront, India have blown hot and cold. On Thursday, Reid rested forward Lalit Upadhyay and without him, the attack lacked a focal point. Mandeep Singh was trying too hard perhaps, which led to him missing more while Prasad, till the time he scored the goal, and Sumit had tough outings.

Rupinderpal said it was a good sign that their worst match of the tournament got done early. “So in that sense, whatever happened against Australia, happened for good,” he said. “It was the start of the tournament and we have learnt our lesson. Thodi sar pe padti hai tab akal aati hai (a setback often brings one to their senses).”

European challenge looms

India will have to beat one of Germany, Netherlands and Britain to enter semis

By beating reigning gold medallists Argentina, India ensured they will finish second in Pool A.

The top four teams from each pool make the knockout stage. India will face an elite European team in the quarters.

The top four spots in Pool B are occupied, at the moment, by Belgium, the Netherlands, Great Britain and Germany (in that order).

India will face the third-placed team in the opposite group. The identity of that team will be known after the last round of Pool B matches on Friday.

Germany face the Netherlands while Great Britain will be up against world champions Belgium. If the Dutch and Belgians win, India will face Britain. If the Germans and Britons prevail, it will be Germany for India.

If the Dutch and Britons win, it will come down to goal difference between the two sides with the team with the inferior goal difference facing India. Same is the case if Belgium and Germany win on Friday.

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