Hindustan Times (Jammu)

India’s Olympic hopes rise after easy win vs Argentina

- Sandip Sikdar sandip.sikdar@htlive.com

A 3-2 shootout win before beating Rio 2016 champions Argentina 3-0 in their backyard three months ahead of the Olympics, the signs are looking good for the Indian men’s hockey team. After escaping to victory on Saturday, India dominated in Buenos Aires on Sunday and the team led by Manpreet Singh will return home from their first FIH Pro League away campaign undefeated.

Goals from penalty corner specialist Harmanpree­t Singh (11th minute), who was Saturday’s Player of the Match, and forwards Lalit Upadhyay (25th) and Mandeep Singh (58th) took India to fourth place, overtaking holders Australia, with 15 points in eight games. Ahead of India in the nineteam league are world No.1 Belgium, Germany and Netherland­s.

“I have been following India for the last five years and they look quite a dangerous team,” said Belgium coach Shane McLeod over the phone from Antwerp. “I think this is the best I have seen them play. They have a mixed team with experience; the young players have brought in freshness and are doing well after winning the Junior Hockey World Cup (in 2016).” In January 2020, India beat 2018 World Cup runners-up Netherland­s 5-2 and 3-3 (3-1). Next month, they won and lost a game each against world champions Belgium and holders Australia. The calendar was then paused by the pandemic but Australian coach Graham Reid made sure the training programme continued at the national camps in Bengaluru. In the absence of an opponent, Reid got the core probables to play among themselves.

The preparatio­n came in handy when India toured Europe for four games against Germany and Great Britain earlier this year. The world No.5 team was undefeated, winning and drawing a match each against both. India also won and drew two practice games against Argentina last week. Argentina, on the other hand, haven’t been playing like a top team. From the high of winning the Olympic gold to the world No.1 ranking in 2017, they are now sixth. The defeats to India extended their losing streak to five games in the league where Argentina are sixth. Having fallen out with the management, key player and drag-flicker Gonzalo Peillat, who was the top-scorer of Rio 2016 with 11 goals, has been out of the team since 2019.

“Argentina are not building at the same degree that will put things in place. May be they will do it in the last month,” said McLeod, who is from New Zealand. “India on the other hand is a medal contender (at the Olympics) for sure. I would like to see them crossover (to the quarter-finals) and winning in semis is always based on (the performanc­e of) that day.”

India have won gold a record eight times but haven’t been on the Olympic podium since winning the title in 1980. In Argentina, India have not leaked lastminute goals their Achilles heel. On the contrary, a bit of magic from Manpreet fetched a penalty corner seconds from the hooter on Saturday. Deputy skipper Harmanpree­t converted six seconds from the hooter, pushing the match into the shootout.

“I think what’s happened is India’s tour to Europe have provided them the rhythm that was needed,” said McLeod. “It is a good side that needs to play some games to reach the level they want to. The more games they play ahead of the Olympics, the bigger the improvemen­t will be and the better they will become.”

The team is also attempting to rectify errors. On Saturday, five cards —two green and three yellow — nearly cost India the match leaving them with nine men in the final five minutes. One day later, India brought down the cards to two, one green and yellow. The forward line, midfield and defence are coming together and custodians PR Sreejesh and Krishan Bahadur Pathak are in form. Pathak foiled the raids of forwards Macio Casella and Martin Ferrerio several times on Sunday to earn the Player-of-theMatch award. “We defended well,” said Pathak after his 50th internatio­nal. “They are good in defence but we created a lot of chances. We scored the goals. We have to work on a lot of things, in defence but in midfield also. We have to learn from this match. Today, we did a lot of good things but we still have to work (to do).”

A cautionary tale

But are India peaking early? Former India skipper Ashish Ballal said: “Yes, the team is showing progress but I will not dwell too deep. One year before the Olympics the situation in always fluid while the Olympics is a totally different ball game --- the strategies, planning and execution is more than 100 per cent when compared to Pro League.”

Speaking from Bengaluru, Ballal, who had guided India to the Asian Games gold after 32 years in 1998, said: “If you see Indian history, every pre-Olympic year India have done tremendous. But at the Olympics we were nowhere. The ultimate test will be how they strategise, attack and convert their game plan in the Olympics.” India will play two friendlies against Argentina, on April 13 and 14, before resuming their Pro League campaign against Great Britain on May 8 and 9 in London.

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