Their World Cup campaign off to a bright start, India will be optimistic of clearing a stern test awaiting them Sunday in the form of world number three Belgium, to guarantee a direct entry into the quarterfinals. Seeking to rewrite history after 43 years, the Indian men’s hockey team made a strong start in the elite 16-nation tournament, with a 5-0 thrashing of South Africa on Wednesday.
Rio Olympic silver medallist Belgium were far from impressive in their fighting 2-1 win over lowly Canada. Eight-time Olympic champions India’s only World Cup crown came way back in 1975. The hosts produced a fine display of attacking hockey to outclass South Africa and would look to continue in the same vein, although consistency is something India has always lacked.
Come Sunday, the Indians will have to be at their best in all departments to get the better of the ever-improving Red Lions, who will be out to prove a point after a not-so-impressive opener. The Indian forward line comprising Mandeep Singh, Simranjeet Singh, Akashdeep Singh and Lalit Upadhyay impressed against South Africa. While Simranjeet scored a brace, all three other strikers struck a goal each.
The Manpreet Singh-led midfield and the backline too did a decent job the other day but defenders Harmanpreet Singh, Birendra Lakra, Surender Kumar and goalkeeper P R Sreejesh will have to be on their toes against the attacking Belgians. World number five India would also look to better their head-to-head record against Belgium. Since 2013, both teams have played against each other on 19 occasions with India registering five wins as against Belgium’s 13. One ended in a draw.
The last time the two teams played each other was in the final edition of the Champions Trophy earlier this year in Breda, Netherlands where India conceded a late goal to settle for a 1-1 draw. The magnitude of a World Cup match is different and both teams are aware that a single mistake can ruin their hopes and aspirations.
Going into the match, penalty corner conversion remains a concern for both the teams as India made use of only one out of five against South Africa, while Belgium wasted the two set pieces that came their way against Canada. India scored from an indirect try by Mandeep from the penalty corner as Harmanpreet’s direct flick failed to crash into the opposition net.
But India’s chief coach Harendra Singh is not that worried about the lack of direct goals from penalty corners, saying he is happy as long as goals are coming. “We scored a mixture of beautiful field goals and penalty corners. Yes, we didn’t score direct from penalty corners but how we score doesn’t matter,” Harendra had said.
The coach said against Belgium the Indian strikers will need to capitalise on the chances the way they did against South Africa. “If you think only about goals then you run for the goals and forget your basics and structure. You need to avail the opportunity that comes your way,” he added.
Belgium has made giant strides in world hockey in the last decade and has been among the top teams but a big title has eluded them. Having scored less in their opener, Belgium coach Shane McLoed said the game against India is a “must-win” for them if they are to top Pool C and avoid cross-overs.
“We have got the three points. We may not have the goal difference we wanted so the game against India becomes a must-win game for us,” he said. “The game against India would demand us to take a step or a couple of steps up otherwise we can’t be competitive.”
In another Pool C match, Canada will play South Africa.