Analysing Indian men's hockey team's opposition at the Tokyo Olympics
The Indian men find themselves in Group A alongside defending champions, Argentina, New Zealand, Spain, hosts Japan and Australia.
Eight-time gold medallists India begin their much-awaited Olympic campaign a month from now,against the backdrop of a pandemic which has deprived many a team of vital match practise on the eve of the big event.
The Indian men find themselves in Group A alongside defending champions, Argentina, 1976 Olympic gold medallists New Zealand, three-time runners up Spain, Asian Games champions and hosts Japan and 2004 Olympic gold medallists, Australia.
Group B consists of Rio silver-medallists and world champions Belgium, four-time Olympic gold-medallists Germany, two-time winners Netherlands, three-time title-holders Great Britain along with Canada and South Africa.
Four teams from both groups will qualify for the quarter-finals and the Indians can ill afford too many slip-ups given their record against quite a few Group A counterparts in recent times.
India vs New Zealand
The Black Sticks Men finished one position ahead of the Indians at Rio 2016 and the eighth-ranked side in the world have what it takes to upset the big boys of the hockey world when it matters the most.
New Zealand will be counting on the experience of Stephen Jenness and Hugo Inglis – both of whom scored against the Indians in the Commonwealth Games semi-final of 2018 – a match which eventually led to an upheaval in Indian hockey.
The Men in Blue have, hopefully, brushed aside the dark memories of the Gold Coast defeat after a 5-0 win against the Black Sticks Men in the finals of the Olympic test event in 2019.
A 1-2 loss to New Zealand in the round-robin league stage of the same tournament, however, underlines the fact that the side captained by Blair Tarrant will be a tricky opponent first up, and the Indians would do well to look out for the dangerous Jared Panchia.
With well over 300 international caps to his name, Shea McAleese's defence will be tough to breach at Tokyo as he guards the backlines alongside Kane Russell.
India vs Australia
As the men in the Green and Gold shirts line up for the action with the rousing notes of Advance Australia Fair ringing across the galleries, opposition fans sit back and hope for the best, but prepare for the worst!
There is an aura of invincibility about Colin Batch's boys with the combined talent of Trent Mitton, Jake Whetton, and Blake Govers wreaking havoc in the opposition circle.
Backed up by the experience and solidity of Eddie Ockenden and Aran Zalewski – and, bolstered by the likes of Timothy Brand who came to the fore in Breda 2018, the boys from Down Under are now placed on top of the heap of the latest FIH World Rankings.
The Indians too have moved steadily up the ladder and are now perched in the fourth position – just one of the many reasons why this eagerly-awaited Sunday encounter in Tokyo between the two great sides will be watched with bated breath.
The Indian men have troubled the Aussies no end ever since the Champions Trophy final of 2016, at London, which the Australians finally won in a controversial shootout.
The kookaburras were then completely outplayed in the summit clash of the last edition of the prestigious tournament at Breda in 2018.
Colin Batch's boys finally prevailed in the Breda shootout and the Indians, despite the bravado, had to settle for a Champions Trophy silver.
A narrow 3-4 loss, to Australia, in the first leg of the 2020 Hockey Pro League was followed by a shootout win for India in the second leg at the Kalinga Stadium.
The Indians will need to seek all the inspiration they can from the Bhubaneswar performance when they take on the Australians, on July 25, on the South Pitch of the Oi Hockey Stadium.
India vs Spain
The Spaniards ended up a creditable fifth, at Rio, before notching up impressive wins against the Netherlands and Olympic champions Argentina in the Hockey World League finals of 2017.
After an exciting start to the 2018 World Cup where the Red Sticks enthralled the crowds despite a narrow 3-4 loss to Argentina, draws against France saw Spain being hurtled out of the tournament before the knock out stage.
The Spaniards, who are now ranked 9th, as per the FIH, registered just two outright wins out of 14 matches played in the inaugural Hockey Pro League in 2019.
Things failed to improve for the Red Sticks as they now languish at the bottom of the 2020 HPL points table with two wins from 12 games.
Spain, however, did well to beat Argentina after recording an impressive draw against a strong German side earlier this year.
The Indians made short work of a Spanish side they encountered during the course of their European tour in 2019 and will be hoping for a repeat show in Tokyo.
India vs Argentina
Powered by 11 goals from Gonzalo Peillat – the one-man PC phenomenon - and the guile of coach, Carlos Retegui, the South Americans stunned the hockey world by clinching gold at Rio 2016.
With both men no longer in the camp, the Los Leones are not quite the side they once were, but can still pack a punch or two on the big stage.
Harendra Singh's team beat the Argentinians 2-1 at the Champions Trophy at Breda - despite the presence of Peillat in the ranks.
At Buenos Aires, Graham Reid's side also got past the hosts by a 3-0 margin in the second leg of their 2020 Hockey Pro League encounter – a match which was to be India's last international before the Tokyo Olympics.
The Rio gold-medallists have now slipped to the seventh position as per the FIH Rankings, but the Indians would do well to remember the 2-2 draw in the first leg of the HPL where a last-gasp effort from Manpreet Singh earned India a PC which saved the visitors the blushes as it led to a last-minute goal.
India vs Japan
If all goes according to plan, Graham Reid's team should be assured of a place in the quarter finals even before taking on the Asian Games champions, but a bad day or two in the office and this could well turn out to be the crunch game before the knock-outs.
The Indians have disposed off Siegfried Aikman's team with huge margins over the last three years or so, but in a do-or-die scenario all that could easily change.
In the semi-finals of the 2018 Asian Champions Trophy, the Indians squeaked past Japan by a narrow 3-2 margin after Hirotaka Zendana's goal in the 56th minute gave the Indian camp quite a few shivers.
The Indians have missed out on some vital match practise with quite a few HPL matches being called off, and the hosts will no doubt enjoy the advantage of playing on familiar conditions as compared to Manpreet Singh and co who will be hoping to book a quarterfinal ticket well before their final group encounter.