What’s the tournament: FIH Pro League
Who’s playing: India (rank: 5) vs Belgium (rank: 1)
When: Saturday, February 8 and Sunday, February 9 (Live on Star Sports 2, 5pm)
Where: Kalinga Stadium, Bhubaneswar
Form card: India beat Netherlands 5-2 and drew 3-3 (won tie breaker 3-1); Belgium drew with Australia 2-2 (won tie breaker 4-2) and beat 4-2
What’s the composition of the Indian team?
Chief coach Graham Reid has made seven changes to the 18-man squad for this weekend’s match from the team that played against the Netherlands last month. Midfielder Rajkumar Pal, 21, is set to make his international debut while youngsters Jarmanpreet Singh and Shamsher Singh have been given an opportunity to make a case for themselves. Dilpreet Singh, who was spent a little more than a year with the junior side after finding it hard to establish himself among the seniors, will make a comeback along with Kothajit Singh, Ramandeep Singh and Hardik Singh. These players have replaced some of the veterans in the squad, including SV Sunil, Akashdeep Singh and Birendra Lakra.
Why has the coach made so many changes if India played well against the Netherlands?
All teams are using Pro League to test their combinations ahead of the Olympics. Reid was initially planning to use two entirely different teams for two matches on a weekend. However, he seems to have decided to rotate the squad for every tie. It looks like the experiment will continue till the very end, given that he has stressed that his ultimate goal is the Olympics and what happens in the Pro League will not have much bearing.
Are Belgium, too, fielding an ‘experimental’ team?
Far from it, in fact. While they, too, are using the Pro League as a test event ahead of the Games, Belgium are here with all their players who played, and won, the World Cup final at the same venue in December 2018. The same bunch went on to win the European Championship last year and finished runners-up in the 2019 Pro League, losing in the final to Australia. The Belgian team that’s here, led by Thomas Briels, is arguably the best in the world at the moment and also the firm favourites for the Olympic gold later this year.
So, Belgium should be the favourites to win this tie?
Yes. Belgium travelled to Sydney a fortnight ago and stayed undefeated in the two matches. In the first match, they scored a last-minute goal to level the scores 2-2 and went on to win the tie-breaker 4-2. In the second game, they were more ruthless, thrashing the defending champions 4-2 in their own backyard.
Belgium’s revolutionary zonal press system, combined with high-press and counter-attacking style, is something India have struggled to deal with in the past. They are solid defensively – led in that department by goalkeeper Vincent Vanasch and defender Arthur van Doren – and boast of some of the best attacking players in the world. There are hardly in chinks in their armour.
What should we expect from India?
Against the Netherlands, India were refreshingly positive in the style they adopted. Reid lined-up his players in a 2-5-3 formation and by crowding the midfield, India were able to win a lot of battles in that area of the pitch and break Netherlands’ momentum. That helped the midfielders and forwards to launch quick breaks, and with a bunch of improved technical skills, they were able to constantly keep the Dutch on the back foot.
One of the hallmarks of India’s style in both those matches was the team was aggressive in their approach and played more forward passes rather than sideways or backwards. Reid doesn’t like playing conservative hockey and for once, the players delivered what the coach demanded.
Are there any major concerns for India?
India’s biggest problem has been consistency. Historically, they have played well in one match and then struggled in the next. Reid has stressed on this point from the time he has taken charge of the dressing room last year, and the players responded when they played against the Netherlands.
There were moments in the match when they let go of the initiative – India were particularly poor in the second quarter of both matches. But some of the senior players in the team stood up and made themselves count when it was needed the most, especially in the second match when India were down by two goals. With Reid choosing to field a fairly young squad this weekend, it remains to be seen if India play with the same discipline.
What will be the key for both teams to win the match?
For India, it will be important to control the pace of the game – Belgium will like to slow things down as they are aware of the threat India’s strikers possess if they find a break. Belgians are good, clean tacklers and are good at intercepting passes in the midfield because of their style of play – they will encourage their opponents to keep the ball in the pockets of space in the midfield; once there, they will press cohesively, try to dispossess and launch a quick attack.
So another challenge for India will be to routinely get behind the midfield. In the World Cup, where India were the only team Belgium couldn’t defeat (2-2 draw), Harendra Singh made the team play an unprecedented number of aerial passes to beat the midfield. Reid has encouraged his players to play forward passes. For that, India will have to be smart and play in a way that they don’t get trap in the middle the wily Belgians will set up.
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