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India must focus on improved final finishing, defensive howlers

India must focus on improved final finishing, defensive howlers

Suhrid Barua

Published: 30 Jun 2019 12:54 PM GMT
An Olympic berth was there for the ‘taking’ for the Indian men’s hockey team at the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia – the winners win an automatic Olympic slot. However, India huffed and puffed their way to a 6-7 shootout defeat against a lower-ranked Malaysia (a side that inflicted the same fate on us at the 2010 Asiad) in the semi-finals of the 2018 Asian Games. The consequence meant that the ‘Olympic qualification road’ was only going to get ‘bumpier’ as the national team now not only had to be part of the 2019 FIH Series Finals but also had to finish among the top two teams to just make it to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic qualifiers to be held later this year. Imagine the blue shirts winning the gold medal at the 2018 Asian Games and our 2020 Tokyo Olympic preparations would have well and truly begun by now, instead of the team channelising their energies on how to make it to the 2020 Olympics. Why I say, an Olympic berth was there for the ‘taking’ because India had dominated that semi-final tie against Malaysia and led twice before defensive bloomers enabled their lower-ranked opponents to square things up and push the match into a shootout, where lady luck smiled on Malaysia, much to the chagrin of India.
The 2019 FIH Series Finals held at Bhubaneshwar was one opportunity for Manpreet Singh’s side to showcase they mean business as far as Olympic qualification is concerned. And they did make a ‘statement of sorts’. Of course, critics might be fair in assessing the clinical goal-scoring spree of the Indians in a relatively depleted tournament, where India were the top-ranked side at number five. South Africa was our top-ranked opponent at number 16, while rest of our opponents - Russia, Poland, Uzbekistan and Japan were ranked at 22, 21, 43 and 18, respectively. But then, in modern hockey, rankings does not have much say at least in contests among the top-15 nations and beyond that of course, the competitive gap has widened to a large extent to expect any kind of stunning upsets. The Manpreet Singh-led side exuded their ‘goal-hungry attitude’ raining goals pumping in as many as 35 goals in the tournaments and conceding just four goals in the process, but still, questions will be asked about our ‘missed goal-scoring chances’. Penalty corner conversions haven’t been our strong point over the years even though the national team had a ‘problem of plenty’ when it comes having short corner options at their disposal – India have the likes of Harmanpreet Singh, Varun Kumar, Amit Rohidas and Rupinder Pal Singh in its ranks.
A close perusal of our short corner conversions in the 2019 FIH Series Finals would give you a reality check about how India need to plug this PC shortcomings if they are to rise above sides like Argentina, the Netherlands, Australia and Belgium (teams ranked above India). India managed to score just 16 short corner goals from 41 earned through the entire tournament – one hopes this stat is not overlooked in the euphoria surrounding India making to the Olympic qualifiers. To delve deep, India earned 12 PCs and 10 PCs against Uzbekistan and Japan respectively, but only managed to rattle the cage only four times against Uzbekistan and thrice against Japan. Another facet that needs urgent attention is our ‘final finishing’ – the national team made a whopping 224 circle entries in the entire tourney and only had 35 goals to show for it – India contrived 63 circle entries against Uzbekistan and scored a 10-0 win, pulled off 48 circle entries against Russia and posted a 10-0 win besides attaining 44 circle entries against Japan in the semifinals and winning 7-2. Without being highly critical of the Graham Reid-coached side, one needs to understand this team is in ‘work in progress’ mode. The forward line has a lot of flair with Akashdeep Singh spearheading this department – Ramandeep Singh made a refreshing international comeback after being out of action for nearly a year owing to a knee injury and struck two telling blows in the semi-finals against Japan. The duo of Mandeep Singh and Simranjeet Singh would have to raise their performance bar (both in scoring as well as creating goal-scoring opportunities for their team-mates). Gursahibjit Singh, a greenhorn in the national side, capped off a pretty good tournament scoring three goals and with places in the forward line up for grabs, he will have to be at his best to retain his spot in the side.
Skipper Manpreet Singh has handled the team well and more often than not has come to the team’s rescue when it has mattered – remember his two goals against Poland – a tie where their European opponents made things tough for us, especially in the first two quarters. He has marshalled the midfield with aplomb. Madhya Pradesh lad Vivek Sagar Prasad has exhibited plenty of promise in midfield, which should augur well for the future. The 2019 FIH Series Finals was Graham Reid’s first major assignment in terms of assessing how the national is shaped up for the bigger battles ahead, including the all-important Olympic qualifiers. The national team have shown that they have a strong and fitter side and tactically robust. A strong focus on avoiding defensive howlers, especially in the closing stages of a match and improved finishing (both in terms of field goals and PC conversions) will stand us in good stead going forward. Surely, the Indian men team’s performance at the 2019 FIH Series Finals gives us a ‘lot of hope for the future’.
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