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Hockey: India to face Russia in opening match as FIH Series Finals begins

Hockey: India to face Russia in opening match as FIH Series Finals begins

Subhashish Majumdar

Published: 6 Jun 2019 7:46 AM GMT

Asian Games champions Japan did not necessarily need to finish on top of the heap, at Jakarta, in order to book themselves a place at Tokyo 2020 - but the fact that they did means that no team has yet earned the right to be part of the Olympics - including the Indians who began as overwhelming favorites to win the Asiad crown last year.

A shock defeat to Malaysia, in the semifinals, deprived the Indians the luxury of ensuring a direct ticket to the Games, which would in effect, have given the eight-time gold-medalists a lot more time to prepare for the prestigious event, considering the fact that all the other continental championships are scheduled later this year.

As things stand, however, coach Graham Reid's Indian side will need to reach the final of the Bhubaneswar leg of the FIH Series Finals, just as Malaysia and Canada did in the Kuala Lumpur edition, if they are to advance to the next round of the Olympic qualifiers.

Six teams from the FIH Series Finals - including the top two from the Le Touquet leg which is scheduled later this month will then be joined by top four sides from the FIH Pro League, in addition to the four highest-ranked teams (as per FIH's September rankings) that have not qualified.

In case Manpreet Singh and co. fail to make the finals at Bhubaneswar, their progress will be dependent on the revised rankings and also results of the other continental championships.

Fourteen teams will then battle it out to determine which of them make it to Tokyo, and India's FIH Series campaign begins this evening at the Kalinga Stadium.

Less than six months after cheering their heroes on to a place in the World Cup quarterfinals, the passionate crowds at Bhubaneswar will now attempt to inspire the home team to victory over adversaries that are neither as accomplished nor as menacing as those of Odisha 2018.

The Russians ranked 22nd, as per the FIH, are not expected to trouble the hosts to any great extent, but the Indians have in their ranks a few youngsters like Gursahibjit Singh and Hardik Singh who cannot afford to be swayed by the vociferous galleries, and will need to keep their focus on the game plan for the entire duration of the match.

Ramandeep Singh, who makes a comeback to the squad following an injury, last year, has not played a single international for over eleven months. The only tournament that the Indians have played this year was the Azlan Shah Cup - and Ramandeep was not part of the squad that lost to Korea in the finals.

The striker was not part of the Australia tour as well - unlike defender Rupinder Pal Singh who has been in and out of the Indian team for the last year or so, and will need to ensure that his drag-flicks find their intended target.

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