So much time has passed since India’s last game here that this almost feels like the start of a new campaign. Since playing out a 2-2 draw with Olympic silver medalists Belgium last Sunday, India took a couple of days off and visited a beach a couple of hours drive from Bhubaneswar. Goalkeeper PR Sreejesh made a whistle-stop visit to Ernakulum to be with his ailing father while sore throat and fever forced skipper Manpreet Singh to miss Thursday’s practice. Last heard, defender Kothajit Singh too was running a temperature.
But on the eve of India’s final Pool C match against Canada, there was a sense of calmness. On Friday, Sreejesh and his back-up Krishan Pathak were at the Kalinga Stadium for an early morning knock around with reserve goalkeeper Suraj Karkera and goalkeeping coach Bharat Chetri. Just the four of them, and a few security guards. Chetri hummed Hindi songs as the thud of the ball hitting the goalkeepers’ pads echoed inside the empty Kalinga Stadium. It was a relaxing way to recover from the hangover of Thursday night, which saw minnows France go berserk against Olympic champions Argentina on the same pitch. It was also a nice way for the players to ease into the rhythm after a week that seems to have dragged on forever. “You do get a bit restless. Especially when you are watching all other teams playing and waiting for your turn,” Manpreet, looking slightly pale, says.
Like India, Canada too spent a couple of days at a beach resort in Puri to get away from the ‘monotony’ of being locked inside the team hotel. For both teams, the challenge will be to shake off the rust when they take on the field on Saturday. More so for India, considering what’s at stake.
The hosts have been impressive in their first two games and have already progressed to the next round. But the task will be to top the pool. That will ensure them of a direct place in the quarterfinals, instead of playing the tricky crossover tie against the third-placed team of Pool D, which in all likelihood will be Pakistan.
But it won’t be easy, even though it might appear to be straightforward. Canada, ranked 11th in the world, are placed six places below India and may lack skills when pitted one-on-one. It’ll, however, be naïve to declare India as the favourites based on these two factors alone. The North American side has been a thorn in the flesh for India in recent matches, with the head to head between the two in last three games reading: Played 1; Lost: 1; Drawn: 1.
Canada defeated India in the last meeting between the two sides, in the Hockey World League Semifinal in London, a result that helped Canada secure their spot in the World Cup. There’s another, bigger, incentive for them if they steal points on Saturday: a place in the next round.
Pattern to play
The matches between the two sides have followed a pattern. India do all the attacking, while Canada sit deep, making them hard to break down. Their ability to keep the scoreline tight and put pressure in the final quarter has worked perfectly in two of the last three matches, where they held India once (2-2 at the Rio Olympics) and beat them on the other occasion (3-2, World League Semifinals). It’s become their obvious strategy and yet, India have not been able to come up with a plan B.
That, at least, hasn’t been an issue in the World Cup. India have shown remarkable ability to adapt to the situation and make necessary alterations to their style – be it against in the opener, when they had to push up an extra man from the defence to reduce South Africa’s dominance in the midfield; or when they had to resort to the aerial ball strategy to counter Belgium’s high press.
But some teething problems remain, especially in the attacking third: striker Mandeep Singh has lacked sharpness and missed a few sitters; his strike partner Dilpreet Singh has gotten into scoring positions but has looked a bit hesitant; and drag-flicker Harmanpreet Singh has been predictable from his drag-flicks.
Akashdeep Singh, after playing a familiar role up front against Belgium, is likely to be played in a more withdrawn role again, with Simranjeet Singh being reinstated as striker. Canada know that as long as they are able to close down the channels – especially Akashdeep’s probing balls from the left – and keep the crowd silent, they stand a good chance of getting something out of this match.
“It’s going to be crucial for us to manage the tempo of the game. We are not as fast (as India) and we will readily admit that. But if we can keep it tight…” Canada captain Scott Tupper said, smiling. “I don’t think the pressure is on us, you know.” Manpreet chooses not to get dragged into the mind games. After spending a week away from action, he just wants to hit the turf running.