Exactly 35 days are left for Hockey World Cup, and if the goalless draw against Asian Games finalist Malaysia is any indication of match intensity, tactical innovation, and simple preparation, one can safely assume there is much more to be done. Leave alone the ‘revenge’ theory to somewhat cleanse ourselves of that defeat in the Asian Games semi-final against the same opponents, India, even with 60 percent possession in the match and dominating, somehow never looked like scoring. Each player was an individual trying to make his mark, the word ‘team’ absent from his terminology.
Malaysia played as if coming in off a trans-Atlantic 15-hour flight. They seemed jet-lagged and heavy on their feet. Attacks were not only sporadic but their lacklustre approach to the game seemed to rub on to the Indians. If that was a tactical move, it brilliantly paid off. If there was something common between both the teams, it was the staid approach, complete lack of innovation which in turn is disquieting and extremely perplexing. If pace was the catalyst that drove the India midfield and forwards upfront, the lack of creativity and the will to organise when things don’t go your way was missing.
Yet when the first salvo hit the Malaysian defence, a speedy Gurjant hitting a wonderful reverse from outside the striking circle, the cross whizzing past Mandeep, the feeling was that over the next hour, things will come together. The start was aggressive but slowly the match turned into more of individual skills rather than a team effort. Worrying was the fact that each player decided to go on his own – the effort that went in creating and building the game, like against Pakistan or Japan, was completely missing. India did stretch the flanks and used hard hits into the striking circle. But with due respect, it wasn’t an inexperienced Oman defence but an opponent who understands and knows the way India plays.
Technical deficiencies came to the fore. Indian forwards refused to go low on the turf when trapping difficult hits. There was lethargy and inertia that either made them take pot shots or show slackness in front of the goal. The argument could be that India missed 3-4 sure-shot goals and that performances do dip in matches. But consistency is what the team needs to be working on when the World Cup is around the corner; a performance like this in the World Cup and the campaign could end even before it has started.
Dilpreet Singh is a precocious talent at his age. But somebody needs to rein him in when it comes to organising that craft, to be able to use that skill in giving his team victory and not throwing away that flair in a moment of flashy but unrewarding play.
In the first quarter came India’s best chance in the match at that stage. Varun Kumar’s aerial was perfect. It deflected off a Malaysian defender's stick and sped to Dilpreet who with just the goalkeeper to beat. It’s a crime not to test the goalkeeper and get a rebound. In a one-to-one situation, Dilpreet went for the corner but the width was too much.
With a minute left in the 1st Quarter, Akashdeep, who again created most of the chances and effortlessly switched positions, sent in a lovely through ball for Mandeep, who beautifully turned around, sending the defender the wrong way but the shot went high above the goal. It’s not the goal, but the expectancy from a forward that he will at least make the shot count by ensuring the opposition defence is on its toes. Even in the last five seconds of the quarter, a cross saw Mandeep bending too late as the ball zipped past his stick.
A different malaise hit India in the rest of the quarters. Playing one-touch hockey seemed the perfect way of finally getting that gap and squeezing in an opening goal. But players decided to strike out on their own. Hardik Singh, in for a lot of praise after the first few games, decided that he would get a goal on his own. Thrice in the match, he launched his own strike, going past 2-3 defenders till being stopped and Malaysia opened up with counters. Luck was in for India that Malaysia didn’t show too much of an appetite either. Malaysia’s counter-attacks didn’t have the usual venom and penetration expected from players like Saari and Tajuddin Tengku.
The play got so scrappy in the 2nd Quarter it resembled a street-fight. Sumit, who seems to be in the play but with no understanding of what needs to be done, raced down the flank, cut into the striking circle and despite Mandeep and Dilpreet in his line of vision, sent the ball out with a rash hit. If the idea was to get a lucky goal, a deflected piece of brilliance, it wasn’t happening. None of the players seem to be in the right position. The team was like a bunch of office-goers forced to work on a Sunday.
In the 2nd Quarter, India had six turn-overs, all in the midfield and the edge of the Malaysian striking circle – that’s more than the Pakistan and Japan match combined. At the end of the 2nd quarter, India had four shots on goal and 13 circle entries, not good enough by any standard.
The improvements didn’t come in the 3rd Quarter. The midfield was muddled. Manpreet Singh, a shadow of the leader against Pakistan, did strive to pick up the pace but the outbound players were struggling to even get into positions. With Malaysia not forcing any concentrated attacks, India could afford to lie low. Surender Kumar had a good first two quarters, a mix of sound defence and a few good aerials. But then in the 3rd and 4th Quarters, the bug caught him too and he started to take on the Malaysian defence, quite often giving away a turn-over and having to run all the way back.
India increased the intensity in the 4th Quarter. But yet again the fluency was missing. The build-up had improved and Lalit set up Nilakanta Sharma with a gift-goal. But the midfielder swung away with a wayward hit as the ball went wide. Nilakanta was in front of the goal with the Malaysian goalkeeper out of position. With frustration building up, India were taking direct hits, hoping something would materialise; a lucky deflection or a horrendous mistake leading to a goal.
India had their 2nd PC in the 4th Quarter. It could have been a telling moment. But Harmanpreet, even though the push was fine, delayed the flick and allowed the runner enough time to deflect. The game had opened up a bit. With India searching for a goal, space had opened up for Malaysia too. Dilpreet created India’s 3rd PC with some smart play. But Harmanpreet missed the flick.
In the dying seconds, a lovely through ball from Gurjant found Mandeep but the trap was completely missed. The end move summed up India’s play which could be termed very disappointing. Applying too much pressure does backfire and one doesn’t know if that’s what happened on the pitch. In the lead-up to the World Cup, every game counts and the performance against Malaysia would worry the management. The positive is it came early in the Asian Champions Trophy and hopefully corrective measures would be taken. It’s not the lack of goals that is worrying but the individual play indulged in by seasoned players as well as the youngsters.
The lack of organisation was apparent. Crucially, Malaysia might have become our psychological bugbear. With ten points each, both India and Malaysia are through to the semi-finals with India topping the pool as they have a better goal difference. The goalless draw was the first between the teams in their last ten games out of which India have won six and Malaysia three. As the teams cooled down at the Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex, the night fading away into the distance, what loomed large were the misses. In the Asian Champions Trophy, there will always be second chances. In the World Cup, none.
Updated Date: Oct 24, 2018 13:49:46 IST