Bhubaneswar: India's only World Cup-winning captain Ajitpal Singh has said that Thursday's quarter-final against the Netherlands will be India's best chance to end their semi-final draught, that stretches back to 1975.
"I would say it is the best chance for India to get into semi-finals because the World Cup is happening on home ground, there will be tremendous crowd support, and the team has progressively become better. They are fitter than ever, and they can sustain the pressure. Thus, it is the best chance for them to get into the semi-final and gun for the podium," Ajitpal told Firstpost.
The former captain, however, sounded a note of caution for Manpreet Singh-led team, who has been guilty of missing scoring opportunities in the Pool stage matches.
"India have to tighten their defence because Holland will come out attacking most of the time. Three of their forwards are very dangerous and deadly. If you get an opportunity and you don't score, you'll have it from The Netherlands, because they are not going to miss any chances. India should not think they can hold them back with their defence, because that's never going to happen. The Dutch will score if you give them a chance. Our forwards can't forget to score.
"No team can win a hockey match if you can't score. Goal karoge to jeetoge (You'll only win if you score). On turf, we can concede a goal anytime; even the last few minutes are very crucial. Our forwards have made circle entries but the final touches have been missing. When you get in the D, you have to make sure that you score. You cannot afford to miss a single chance on Thursday, because Holland are not going to spare you. It's not an easy match like South Africa or Canada," the three-time World Cup medallist warned.
India's sloppiness was largely papered over by impressive victory margins, but the first-half game against Belgium threw open a can of disastrous possibilities. Under attack and dispossessed, India's defence was put through a stern test, before the hosts came out all guns blazing in the second half and scored twice to eventually draw the match 2-2.
Ajitpal said India's counter-attack in the third quarter of that game was good enough to beat any top team. "Against Belgium, we were nowhere in the first half, but in the third quarter, we were outstanding. The way the boys played in the third quarter, I think they can beat any team (with that game) - Australia, Netherlands, Germany. But this patchy performance is very dangerous. We have to be systematic and organised," he said.
Commenting on the similarity in styles of both teams, the former stalwart said that the open-game tactics will make the match-up interesting.
"Both teams are evenly matched. The Netherlands are one of the title favourites, and so are India. It will be a very, very interesting match because both teams play open hockey. They play, and they let you play as well by way of giving spaces. They are not sides that believe in marking too much and stifling the game. It can go either way, depending on how teams turn up tomorrow. India are definitely in a position to beat the Netherlands, provided we take our chances."
After a two-day relative lull, the 15,000-seater Kalinga Stadium is expected to record full house, and Ajitpal, who was at the receiving end of crowd support in the 1973 World Cup, said that city's passionate fans give the home side a definite edge.
"We have the advantage of crowd support. The edge that a full house rooting for you gives you is unbelievable. We played against The Netherlands in the final of 1973 in their country. We were leading 2-0 at half-time and the crowd was shell-shocked. In the second half, they came out attacking, and the local crowd really got behind them. They cheered them so much that we were in a real mess in the defence. They were attacking all the time. But the crowd can not play for you; it's up to the boys to go out and win. You can't expect the crowd to win the match for you," he recalled.
In the first quarter-final of the day, Germany will play Belgium to decide a semi-final date against England. The winner of Netherlands-India clash will face defending champions Australia in the last-four stage on Saturday.
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Updated Date: Dec 13, 2018 08:05:06 IST