Confidence is not something that is in short supply for Indian hockey coach Roelant Oltmans. He waltzed in for the mandatory press conference before the Asian Champions Trophy semi-final against South Korea and sat alone answering questions. Indian captain P Sreejesh, who missed the last two matches was absent in this case as well.
But before reporters could ‘assume’ that there was any other reason behind Sreejesh’s absence, Oltmans cleared the air. “I think he will be playing the semi-finals. It was just an ankle injury and he is okay now.”
India’s group match against South Korea ended in a 1-1 draw; an intense match in which India found it difficult to break down the Korean defence. Oltmans understands the enormity of the task at hand. He mentioned the last group match between Malaysia and Korea and that it took hosts Malaysia three quarters to finally break the Korean side down. “They have conceded very few goals and their defence is very solid. But we will try and find a way. Of course, I can’t reveal that publicly but, yes, we are up to the challenge.”
Knock-out matches at this level are usually a battle of the coaches' tactics, though of course, it’s the team that will eventually put the coach's plan into action.
Malaysian coach Stephen van Huizen said, “Small errors determine the result of a match. India and Korea are strong. Korea, in fact, have improved through the tournament and I do believe the semi-final will be orchestrated by the minds of Oltmans and Paul Lissek.”
Lissek, who took Germany to the gold medal in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, had been the coach of Malaysia and has now been hired to take Korea back into the elite six and start a process of consistent results. Lissek is the brain behind most of Korea’s movements and usually sits in a quiet area of the stands, yelling out instructions. “We are looking forward to the match against India and we will play our man-to-man system and if the team can play with the same intensity and momentum like we did against Malaysia, we surely have a chance against India,” he said.
India suffered a setback in the form of a two-match suspension for deep defender Surendra Kumar who got a yellow in the match against Malaysia. The tournament committee ruled that Surendra’s stick was raised in an inappropriate manner thereby causing the stick to hit the chin of Azri Hassan. Since, it’s a level two offence under the FIH code of conduct, Surendra will sit out the next two matches. It also rules him out of the final if India qualifies.
Oltmans believes his presence was important because he had more roles to perform other than just defending. “He has been there for a very long time,” said Oltmans. “But, yes, we will prepare without him and change the strategy that we normally should have adopted.”
In the five group matches that India have played, they have scored 25 goals and conceded six. Rupinder Pal Singh has contributed to 10 goals off penalty corners. The Indian forwards have scored 15 field goals. Out of the six conceded, five have been from open play, and the most important aspect of India’s performance has been that they have conceded only one goal from penalty corners. It came in their last group match against Malaysia.
With Birendra Lakra back as the tackler, the Indian defence will heave a sigh of relief. Lakra’s presence also gives confidence to Rupinder and Jasjit Singh Kular to move up. At times, Kular does appear as a forward, leaving his usual position, to try and press the opposition more. The goalkeeping, if not top class, has been quite efficient, especially in the last two matches in which Akash Chikte, standing in for Sreejesh conceded only one goal.
Against Malaysia, Pradeep Mor dominated in the right half position and troubled the Malaysians with his runs, passes and hits into the striking circle. Mor’s composure in holding the ball and moving up might prove decisive against Korea. If there is a weakness for Korea, it’s on the right flank where they are often hard-pressed to clear the ball, using up precious seconds and also giving away crucial penalty corners.
Akashdeep and Nikkin Thimmaiah’s speed has troubled most defences. In fact, Nikkin has been distinctly unlucky in terms of not getting more goals. His sprints into the opposition circle have had defence’s trying to crowd him out but his skills have been astounding. Against Malaysia, his positioning inside the circle was perfect for the rebound ball, but he was unlucky that his deflections and hits went straight to the goalkeeper. One hopes he is luckier against Korea and gets on the scoresheet.
Sardar Singh has been off-colour except in the match against Malaysia where he played as a defender and moved the ball around, trying to create space for others upfront. The slide in his form has been dramatic. It would be a huge advantage for India if the former captain finds his mojo against the Koreans.
According to hockey statistician BG Joshi, India have a fantastic record of winning semi-finals at the Asian level. India have played a total of 18 Asian Games and Asia Cup semi-finals winning 15 and losing just three. The three semi-finals India lost have come twice at the Asian Games (India lost 1-3 to Pakistan in 1986, and 3-4 to Malaysia in 2010 by a golden goal), and once in the Asia Cup (India lost to Korea 4-5 in 1999).
Against Korea, India have played three semi-finals before, winning twice and losing once. The only loss came in the 1999 Asia Cup, while India won at the 2003 Asia Cup (4-2) and then the 2014 Asian Games (1-0).
The pressure in a semi-final will be crushing, but in the Korean dug out, there would Song Seung Tae – the former Korean forward, and now coach, who broke Indian hearts in the 1999 Asia Cup by scoring the winner with just 45 seconds on the clock. A year later, he pulled it off again, this time against Pakistan in the 2000 Olympics semi-final. Song is known for his last gasp strikes, and if the Asian Champions Trophy semi-final against India enters the fourth quarter, with the teams even, Song’s experience will come in handy.
India may not share a border with Korea or have a past that throws both the nations into a tizzy when they confront each other on the sports field, but over the years, since Korea mastered the speed and the skill of this sport, matches have been intense – 76 matches have been played, India have won 30, drawn 15 and lost 31. If form is the only pointer to a result, Oltman’s boys should be restoring the balance afer this encounter.
Updated Date: Oct 29, 2016 09:50 AM