If moving on was an art, India would seem to be quite adept at it. Or maybe, it’s just a case of selective memory loss. That’s what the mood within the camp suggests anyway.
India’s buildup to the World Cup has been far from ideal. They changed the coach less then roughly six months before the World Cup, suffered a morale-sapping defeat at the Asian Games and in the aftermath of it, saw the team’s senior-most player, Sardar Singh, virtually forced into retirement.
But somehow, the coaching staff seems to have ensured the players wipe off those memories and remember only the good ones. And there have been some, like the podium finish at Champions Trophy in June. “If we keep reminding ourselves of negative things, it’s not good. We did well at Champions Trophy, World League… that needs to be shown to the players,” coach Harendra Singh said.
How effective this approach is will only be known at the end of India’s campaign but for the time being, it seems to have lifted some of the gloom in the camp. As India prepared for Sunday’s clash against Belgium, which might be crucial in deciding which team tops the group, the atmosphere within the playing group seems jovial, at least from the outside.
India’s second match of the tournament is easily their most important of the group stage. The winner, after all, will be all but assured of a direct place in the quarterfinals instead of going through the tricky cross-over tie, where the Pool C runners-up will meet the third-placed side of Pool D, which most likely will be either Malaysia or Pakistan. In that sense, Sunday’s match assumed high significance. If rankings are an indication, then there isn’t much to separate the two teams — Belgium are third, just two places above India. The more revealing stat that highlights the gulf between the two teams is that since 2013, the two sides have met 19 times with Belgium winning 13 of them. India, on the other hand, have managed to beat them just five times while one has ended in a draw. Narrow the search further and you find out that India have won just one out of the last eight encounters.
This alone should put into perspective the challenge that awaits India. Along with Australia, Belgium, the Rio Olympics silver medalists, are the favourites to win the World Cup. They have one of the most experienced bunch of players who’ve been playing together for close to five years. They are quick and make few errors; their chances-to-conversion ratio is high, and are among the sturdiest teams defensively.
But India are putting on a brave face. “Past results do not mean anything,” Harendra beamed, adding that they will not compromise on their attacking style. It’s brave and all, but this mindset has also been India’s pitfall in the past.
India looked world class against South Africa because the opponent lacked quality and fitness to last the entire duration of the match. But it’ll be naïve for them to believe the same strategy can reap rewards against Belgium.
If past encounters are a template, then rather than playing on their own terms, India have often ended up playing the way Belgium want them to. So even though it looks like India are the aggressors, with more circle entries and more possession, it doesn’t lead to anything dangerous as they end up being pushed wide.
India are a team that generally attacks from the wings. Belgium, who are structurally solid, are good at blocking those channels, forcing India to either go aerial or one-on-one, a scenario where their superior technical skills give them an edge.
Hence, from an Indian point of view, it’ll be interesting to see how potent Akashdeep Singh is against them. The forward has been employed in a more withdrawn role on the wings by Harendra, which has worked wonders for the team as he has been able to create multiple opportunities for the strikers with his precise crosses.
On the other hand, Belgium have repeatedly shown they have the ability to hurt India on counterattacks, especially because of the excessive pressure they put on the midfielders. Their style is likely to keep centre-half Manpreet Singh busy while the defence will have to be alert at all times. The only factors that might bother Belgium are India’s pace and the noisy crowd. The combination resulted in them losing to the hosts via shoot-outs of the World League Finals last year. That match, played at the same venue, was one of India’s finest performances against Belgium.
With virtually a place in the quarterfinal at stake, that’s a good memory India will like to carry going into Sunday’s match.