Their campaign off to a smooth start, hosts India would look to seal a direct quarterfinal berth with a win against Canada in their final Pool C match of the men’s hockey World Cup on Saturday. World number 5 India are currently leading Pool C with four points from two games ahead of Olympic silver medallist Belgium (4 points) on account of a better goal difference. The Indians have a goal difference of + 5 as against Belgium’s +1.
Both Canada and South Africa have one point each from two matches but the North Americans are placed third with a goal difference of -1 as against South Africa’s -5. India thrashed South Africa 5-0 and drew 2-2 against Belgium in their earlier matches, while Canada lost 1-2 against the Red Lions before eking out a hard-fought 1-1 draw against the Africans.
While India are placed at an advantageous position at present, the pool is still wide open. The hosts would not want to leave anything on chance and they would seek a comprehensive win on Saturday to cement their place atop the pool and directly qualify for the last eight round.
The second and third placed teams from the pool will play cross-over matches against number 2 and 3 teams of other pools to decide the remaining last four quarterfinal places. Going by records and form, India are hands down favourites to come out victorious against Canada.
But as we have witnessed on Thursday with world number 20 France upsetting Olympic champions Argentina in a Pool A encounter, anything can happen in modern world hockey.
Besides the better rankings, India enjoy a superior head-to-head record against Canada. Since 2013, India and Canada have played five matches against India with the hosts having won three, lost one and drawn one. So come tomorrow, the Indians will have to come out with a clear frame of mind and with just one goal — a comprehensive win against Canada and top the pool.
But it would be easier said than done as the Canadians have improved tremendously over the years, especially their defence, which was visible in their first game against Belgium who found it difficult to break their backline and just managed to eke out a narrow 2-1 win.
The onus would be on India’s lethal forward line comprising Mandeep Singh, Simranjeet Singh, Akashdeep Singh and Lalit Upadhyay to take responsibility on their shoulders. The Indian midfield, led by skipper Manpreet Singh, has so far produced a decent show, while the defence need to be more agile and cautious, especially considering the fact that the backline is infamous for crumbling under pressure towards the end.
Conceding late goals has been India’s perennial problem and it once again came to hurt the hosts when their defence, consisting of Birendra Lakra, Surender Kumar, Harmanpreet Singh, broke down under pressure to concede a goal four minutes from the final hooter and gift Belgium a draw in their last match.
Indian goalkeeper P R Sreejesh too does not look the same under the bar after returning to the side following an injury lay-off. Canada have given India problems in the past, the most recent being in last year’s Hockey World League Semi-Finals in London where they defeated India 3-2 to finish fifth. If that was not enough, in the 2016 Rio Olympics too, India were held to a 2-2 draw by the Canadians.
But India’s chief coach Harendra Singh was not in a mood to dwell in the past and said those experiences will only act as catalyst to do better on Saturday. “Past failures are experiences. These experiences we will try to make use the present. The present is the match against Canada. The match will decide the fate of our pool. I am not thinking about what happened in Hockey World League Semi-Final or Rio Olympics,” Harendra said.
While insisting that Canada will rely on counter-attacks, the coach said India can’t divert from its strength — that is attacking hockey.
“They will not give space. They wait, wait and wait to get opportunities and that will be their plan. But we have to play to our strength,” Harendra said.
“You can’t go and defend. You can’t be on the backfoot. We have to play attacking hockey. The players have adopted attacking hockey when they were teenagers. It’s in our culture. You can make minor adjustments, but not change the mindset,” he added.
(With PTI Inputs)