The stage is set for hockey qualifiers, which will be India’s final chance to book a place at the Tokyo 2020. While Manpreet Singh will lead the men’s team, Rani Rampal will be in charge of the Indian Eves when they take on Russia and the USA, respectively in two matches each at the FIH Hockey Olympic Qualifiers to be played at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar Friday and Saturday.
The new format to qualify for the Olympics involves 28 teams — 14 men and 14 women teams — playing in seven qualifying events each. Six of those events were played from October 25 to 27 and the remaining will be played on November 1 and 2.
The World No. 5 Indian men’s team drew 22nd-ranked Russia while the women (9th) drew No. 13 USA as their opponents. Because they are higher ranked, the Indian teams earned the right to host the qualifiers.
Cannot take Russia lightly
Going by the record book, all home teams so far, who also are the higher rank sides, have won their matches. However, despite India also having a similar home-side advantage, they cannot take the Russian side lightly. There have been some major scares so far in the Olympic qualifiers. The Pakistani side held World Cup silver medallists, the Netherlands to a 4-4 draw in their first match before going down completely in the second leg by a 1-6 scoreline, which placed the Dutch side at the Olympics.
In a similar way, France held Spain to a 3-3 draw before losing their second match by a narrow 2-3 margin. Canada also prevailed over Ireland in a shootout.
India had its first shot at the Olympics place last year during the Asian Games in Jakarta, where a gold medal would have guaranteed a place in Tokyo. However, India’s defeat to Malaysia in the semi-final shootout eventually held the side and they had to reach to this position charting a course through FIH Series Finals.
India under Graham Reid won the FIH Series Finals, where they beat South Africa in the summit clash. Indian opened their campaign in the tournament by crushing Russia by a 10-0 margin. However, they fought back to a 3-2 win against Poland – who the Indians fought hard to win by a 3-1 margin. It is a testament to fact that the Russians (ranked 22nd in the world, cannot be taken lightly. Even Russia’s Semen Matovskiy was the joint-highest scorer of the tournament along with Harmanpreet Singh and Varun Kumar.
Varun, picking up an injury at the last moment has made way for Birendra Lakra in the squad. The attack will bank on Lalit Kumar Upadhyay, SV Sunil, Mandeep Singh, Akashdeep Singh and Ramandeep Singh. In the defence, Indians will be depending upon three-man PC specialists consisting of Harmanpreet, Amit Rohidas and the seasoned Rupinder Pal Singh. Though Russia are the clear underdogs here, India will aim to give their best as they seem to have learnt from past experiences.
A tough challenge against the USA
Indian women’s team coach Sjoerd Marijne has made no such changes in the side for the qualifier, as the team has produced quality results this year.
Although the Indian girls are ranked higher (9th) than their opponents (13th), overcoming the USA will be challenging going by the head-to-head record between the two teams. The Kalinga Stadium will witness Rani & Co. in action for the first time against USA who played out a 1-1 draw against India at the London World Cup last year.
A lot has changed in the past one year, and India looks sharper and better tactic-wise. The team itself is in a good rhythm as most of the players selected for the Olympics Qualifiers have played together as a unit for a long time now. It is quite a well-settled team where players understand each others’ game pretty well. Though India will miss it’s long-time reliable defender Sunita Lakra owing to injury woes, it will be in charge of experienced Deep Grace Ekka and Reena Khokhar, alongside Salima Tete and one of the most valuable players in the squad, Gurjit Kaur. Gurjit has made her prominence felt in the team significantly with her incredible drag-flick abilities that have been an element of horror for opponents during penalty corners. In the goal, India will rest its faith on its long-serving keeper Savita Punia, who have proved her mettle time and again becoming the vital cog for the team on numerous occasions.
India’s success will be heavily reliant on its star-studded forward line, which haven’t seen much change over the years. While captain Rani will be teaming up with Vandana, Navneet and Navjot, youngster Sharmila Devi, who is just seven-matches-old, will try to find a breakthrough. They will be joined by the Mizo sensation Lalremsiami, who is touted as one of the finest players in the team.
In 2019, India have won the major share of the tournaments they have played. Out of the 28 matches, Rani’s team won 16, drew nine and lost only three. Coach Marijne has been able to get more consistency out of the team and winning the FIH Series Finals followed by Tokyo Test Event and a series draw against higher-ranked Great Britain (5th) makes the side look strong enough to put a dent on the American dream.
India: Manpreet Singh (Captain), SV Sunil (vice-captain), PR Sreejesh, Krishan Bahadur Pathak, Harmanpreet Singh, Birendra Lakra (replaced injured Varun Kumar), Surender Kumar, Gurinder Singh, Rupinder Pal Singh, Amit Rohidas, Nilakanta Sharma, Hardik Singh, Vivek Sagar Prasad, Lalit Kumar Upadhyay, Mandeep Singh, Akashdeep Singh, Ramandeep Singh, Simranjeet Singh
Russia: Denis Shchipachev (c), Mikhail Proskuriakov, Denis Starienko, Georgii Arusiia, Semen Matkovskiy, Dmitry Zheleznyakov, Alexander Skiperskiy, Evgeny Artemov, Marat Khairullin, Pavel Golubev, Sergey Lepeshkin, Andrey Kuraev, Iaroslav Loginov, Artem Nadyrshin, Ivan Ozherelev (GK), Marat Gafarov (GK), Artem Borisov, Alexey Sobolevskiy
India: Rani Rampal (captain), Savita (vice-Captain), Rajani Etimarpu, Deep Grace Ekka, Gurjit Kaur, Reena Khokhar, Salima Tete, Sushila Chanu Pukhrambam, Nikki Pradhan, Monika, Neha Goyal, Lilima Minz, Namita Toppo, Vandana Katariya, Navneet Kaur, Lalremsiami, Navjot Kaur, Sharmila Devi
USA: Kathleen Sharkey (c), Erin Matson, Lauren Moyer, Danielle Grega, Casey Umstead, Virginia Bramley, Alyssa Parker, Amanda Magadan, Ashley Hoffman, Julia Young, Linnea Gonzales, Anna Dessoye, Froede Ali, Margaux Paolino, Caitlin van Sickle, Alyssa Manley, Kealsie Robles (GK), Kelsey Bing (GK)
Kalinga Stadium, Bhubaneswar, Odisha
Women: India vs USA, Match 1 (6 pm IST)
Men: India vs Russia, Match 1 (8 pm IST)
Women: India vs USA, Match 2 (6 pm IST)
Men: India vs Russia, Match 2 (8 pm IST)
Telecast: Star Sports
Live Streaming: Hotstar