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Hockey World League Semi-Final: India need to shrug off familiar classification stage woes against Pakistan

Expected to be building towards a top-four finish at the Hockey World League Semi-Final, India find themselves in a dark tunnel locked in a battle for the 5th to 8th positions. Standing in front of them are Pakistan, who honestly India had thought had been consigned to the classification bin after the 7-1 thrashing in a Pool B match. But their own brittle mind, combined with play that should embarrass them whenever they see video replays, have brought forth the rivalry into play again.

 Hockey World League Semi-Final: India need to shrug off familiar classification stage woes against Pakistan

Akashdeep Singh celebrates scoring the fifth goal for India against Pakistan on 18 June. Getty Images

It’s not certain whether either team wanted to play this game. But here we are again. The game holds a lot of importance for Pakistan as a win will give them the opportunity to finish 5th and seal automatic qualification for the 2018 World Cup. For India, it’s a question of pride, honour and, without a doubt, ‘self-respect’ that would ensure they take a flight home knowing that half the job has been done, if not full.

Neither Khawaja Muhammad Junaid, Pakistan’s coach or his India counterpart Roelant Oltmans would relish the thought of both teams meeting once again amid the cacophony of nationalistic fervor again in just a span of few days.

“We did our best against the Olympic champions Argentina, fought for every inch and lost a good game. I would be happy if we play a similar game against India. We understand that we have to win,” Junaid said.

Oltmans was slightly more upfront and blunt. He had not envisaged that India would be playing Pakistan as, according to him, they were looking forward to meeting Argentina in the semi-finals. Malaysia provided a rude shock and now at the end of the pitch stand Pakistan, who have been much chastened but are understand their weaknesses much better.

India are jittery after the loss to Malaysia, their second straight at the Hockey World League. And history does tell us that India are not great in classification matches. When asked if there would be a similar scoreline as in the pool game, Oltmans immediately played down the possibility. “It won’t be 7-1 again,” he said, with a shake of his head. “Pakistan will always get opportunities.”

The implication was quite clear. Any plans of a blitzkrieg against Pakistan had been watered down. India would try and play sensible hockey to win and gain some satisfaction after the disaster against Malaysia.

Junaid, on the other hand, spoke about Pakistan’s improvement and how they are taking it match by match to come back into the world’s top six and against any team above them, a win would be considered an improvement.

Oltmans has his work cut out. He needs to inject adrenaline into this Indian side that would still be reeling from the unexpected defeat against Malaysia. The Dutchman said, “If we take our chances and work on the execution, we should do it.” That’s a simplistic view of hockey.

Mandeep Singh, who came into this tournament with five goals in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup and a reputation to maintain, has been the biggest letdown. These may be strong words for a player like him but when you don’t show up for any of the five matches with no goals to your credit, it’s time to understand that it’s just not form that is the culprit. At the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, Mandeep was praised by Oltmans as the next big thing in Indian hockey. “I see the striker in him that India has lacked,” said Oltmans. At the moment, if Mandeep can hold a ball and create a move that would be a small win in the larger scheme of things.

In a classification match, the stakes are different. For Pakistan, the motivating factor would be a win over India and to try and finish 5th to seal a spot in the World Cup. India’s only gain is to beat Pakistan. There are no worries over the World Cup as India are the hosts.

In the 2002 Champions Trophy in Cologne and the 2003 Champions Trophy in Amstelveen, India won the Pool match and then went onto lose the bronze medal game to Pakistan; in 2002, India led 3-1 before losing that match 4-3.

But the 2016 Asian Champions Trophy in Kuantan was different. India beat Pakistan 3-2 in the pool game and by the same margin in the final. Here at the Olympic Park in London, India wouldn’t mind a replay of Kuantan.

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Updated Date: Jun 24, 2017 11:19:05 IST

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