They are winless in the tournament so far, but their never-say-die attitude and a favourable draw can take India deep into the Women’s Hockey World Cup in London. Sjoerd Marijne’s wards scrapped to hold higher-ranked United States to a 1-1 draw in their final Pool B encounter on Sunday and stayed alive in the tournament only on goal difference, and will face Italy in the cross-over match for a spot in the quarter-finals. Italy are the lowest-ranked team in the competition at No.17 and are coming into the contest after a 12-1 drubbing at the hands of the Netherlands. Victory on Tuesday will pit 10th-ranked India against the Irish girls, who pipped them in a pool match last week.
Even though Ireland topped Pool B, they are the second-lowest ranked team in the competition at No. 16 and went down 0-1 to England on Sunday. So if the Indian girls play to potential, it is not inconceivable to have them in the final four on the weekend – India’s best performance. Till date, at the Women’s Hockey World Cup has been a fourth-place finish at Mandelieu, France, in 1974.
After 1-1 draws against England and USA and a 0-1 defeat to Ireland, it is clear that scoring goals is the biggest concern for the Indian think tank. They have penetrated the rival circle on countless occasions but come back empty-handed almost every time. Neha Goyal found the target with a field goal against the hosts, while skipper Rani Rampal had to step up for a penalty corner and score with a direct hit. Drag-flicker Gurjit Kaur was expected to give the team an added dimension, but that has not been the case till now. It speaks volumes about Rani’s resolve as she sustained a fall pretty early in the match and had to limp off the field for a little while.
Against their higher-ranked group opponents England (No.2 ) and USA (No. 7), the Indian defence was put under considerable pressure. It was here that custodian Savita and the deep defence – with the likes of Sunita Lakra and Nikki Pradhan – came out with flying colours.
“We have been playing well in all our games but we haven’t been able to score,” said Rani after the match. “Our coach just said, ‘believe in yourselves, you are doing very well, we just need an outcome’. We went 1-0 down but at half time he said, ‘come on, you have just 30 minutes left. Let’s put everything into the game’. “USA created a lot of chances and Savita and the defence played very well. It was a case of who wanted the game more and I think, today, we just wanted it that little bit more.”
Against Italy, India will be expected to do much more of the running as they will be favourites. The Italians may have been thrashed by the world champions, but they put it across two Asian teams — China (3-0) and Korea (1-0) — in the pool stage and will be keen to make it three in a row. India needed a shootout to prevail over the Europeans at the 2015 Hockey World League Semifinals in Antwerp, but much water has flown under the bridge since then. The Indians have improved their world ranking from No.13 in the last three years.
As is the case with most relatively lower-ranked teams, the Italians are very well structured and good at set-pieces. India cannot afford to concede many penalty corners to their well-drilled opponents. Two of their five goals in the competition have come via that route. They are not too shabby in open play either with Valentina Braconi finding the target twice at the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre. They try to hit the opponents at pace on counter-attacks and try to raid the striking circle in numbers.
The rampaging Dutch had a field day against them, but the Chinese and Koreans could not find a way through. “Italy is a good team and they have enjoyed good wins in this tournament too. But we need to go into the match with the self-belief that we can beat them,” Rani said. “We need to just focus on ourselves, build on our strength and ensure we use our positive points in the match against Italy. There is no doubt we need to go all-out in this crucial crossover match if we want to see ourselves in the quarter-final,” the skipper said.
The result against the Americans would have come as a great relief for Marijne, who was sent back from the men’s team a few months ago after the players expressed their disenchantment with his methods. The Dutchman did have some success with the women’s team in his previous stint and a good result in London will raise his stock in Indian hockey circles once again.
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