Playing down the India-Malaysia quarter-final could be a shrewd approach. But when both coaches refuse to put their team ahead in the show-boating race, it can mean only one thing – contests between both these teams have been closer than predicted.
In the bragging rights arena, Stephen van Huizen even downplayed their last engagement when Malaysia beat India 1-0 at the 2017 Azlan Shah, around 45 days back. “That was a different tournament,” Stephen said. “We were playing at home and we won.” Of course, London is different. The Hockey World League is not the Azlan Shah. But the core area, the players remain the same. Irrespective of the venue, India and Malaysia have had some razor-sharp contests.
India, however, enter the final and most challenging phase of a tournament, the result of which will not only help gauge the quality of this team but also give a peep into the future, especially keeping in mind the 2017 Hockey World League Finals and the 2018 World Cup, both of which are being hosted by India. In a way, it’s also a battle to reclaim old glory and climb from the present World ranking of No 6 to enter the world’s top four. It is a realistic target but only time will tell if it can be realised.
After the 1-3 loss to Holland, a match where India showed persistence and could have pulled a goal back after Akashdeep Singh scored, the quarter-final will be a test of fortitude, grit and resoluteness. More than that, this Manpreet Singh-led squad needs to show some spunk against the fast moving and pacy Malaysians.
Justifying the defeat to the Dutch as a Pool match where the result wasn’t a knock-out, the Indian captain said, “See it was a pool match and we didn’t want to do any variations as most teams would have seen that before the knock-outs begin. The quarter-final is more important in the tournament. So, now we have to focus on it. We will try new variations in quarters and hopefully in the semi-finals.”
Indian coach Roelant Oltmans had said before the tournament that he doesn’t want to think about players who are not here. But Rupinder Pal Singh’s hamstring injury a day before the World League has made India deficient in the penalty corners department. Harmanpreet Singh is good but when it comes to the variation and angles, he still hasn’t got it right. The mixing of the angles combined with the low flicks adds to the penalty corner flicker's arsenal. And India are suffering at the moment.
For a player who has played the Olympics, misfiring a penalty corner against the Dutch was not expected and that is one area where Oltmans needs to seriously look at before assembling the troops against the Malaysians. Sometimes, you can’t have everything. The Indian forwards till now have scored 12 goals out of a total of 15 goals. Harmanpreet Singh has scored three off penalty corners. If India gets the breaks early and penalty corners follow, Harmanpreet Singh will have to convert to ensure that Malaysia remain under pressure.
After the match against Malaysia that India lost 0-1 giving up a place in the final in the 2017 Azlan Shah, Malaysian coach Stephen van Huizen had said, “After India failed with the penalty corners, we had no fear and played more openly.” That cannot be allowed against a side that cuts into the middle from the flanks very efficiently. Those were the breaks that we allowed the Dutch.
Stephen still believes that India will be coming against the Malaysians with everything they have got. “India will be geared up for revenge after the Azlan defeat,” he says. “We cannot gift them early goals because then we are over. We will keep the game tight and hopefully take it into the last quarter and even try for a shoot-out if scores are equal.”
No coach wants to chase in modern hockey. But it’s still a sport where coming back into the game depends on pure finishing. “We have a team that refuses to die down,” says Oltmans. “Against Holland, we showed that even though the Dutch could have scored more in the 1st quarter, we didn’t give up in the 3rd and 4th quarter.”
In the last five matches played between both the nations, India lost only once and won the rest; the last loss coming in the 2017 Azlan Shah (0-1). But before that, India beat them in the 2016 Asian Champions Trophy (2-1); at the 4-Nation Hockey Festival, Melbourne (4-2, 4-1 respectively) and then at the 2016 Azlan Shah with a big margin of 6-1. The scorers of that match Ramandeep Singh (2) and Talwinder Singh (1) will line-up against Malaysia. Interestingly, in the 2015 Hockey World League in Antwerp, India met Malaysia in the quarter-finals. Satbir gave India the lead but after that Malaysia went 2-1 up before Jasjit Singh Kular flicked in two penalty corners to give India victory. Kular is in London as a replacement for Rupinder Pal Singh.
Take a look at these scores: Malaysia beat India 3-2 in the 2015 Azlan Shah; India beat Malaysia 3-2 at the 2014 World Cup at Hague and then at the 2013 Asian Champions Trophy in Japan, India won 4-3. Margins have been narrow. “Those matches have happened,” said Oltmans. “I am interested in securing wins in the coming matches.”
Europe has not been a good hunting ground for Malaysia. In fact, they have never beaten India on European soil. In the 2004, Madrid qualifiers for the Athens Olympics, India won 5-3. In the 1996 Olympic Qualifiers, India and Malaysia drew 0-0 and before that in 1986 in a Test match in Belgium, India beat Malaysia 5-2.
The trend may still continue looking at the proficiency of the Indian forwards in this tournament. Akashdeep Singh (5), Ramandeep Singh (2), Talwinder Singh (2) and a goal each by Pardeep Mor, Sardar Singh and SV Sunil give India an edge.
On the other side, Malaysia have scored through Rahim Razie (3) and Faizal Saari (3). The one player, India were really expecting to shine on this stage was Mandeep Singh who had a good outing in the 2017 Azlan Shah with five goals which included a hat-trick against Japan. But Mandeep is yet to get into his groove. He has had chances but the poacher’s instinct seems to have deserted him. Nothing would be better for India than seeing Mandeep roar back into form against Malaysia.
But Malaysia may have a hidden card in the form of their Technical Director, Terry Walsh, the former Indian coach under whom India won the 2014 Asian Games. Terry now advises Malaysian coach Stephen and with his inside knowledge of Indian players, the match could rise to heights not yet seen in this rivalry between the two Asian nations. Stephen didn’t want to get into a conversation about Terry but said, “All things being equal, India are still the favourites.”
On the low conversion rate of penalty corners, Indian coach Oltmans had the last word. “More important part of the team is still to come,” said the Dutchman with a smile. For several Indian hockey fans, Akashdeep is the man of the moment with a talent so persuasive that when he moves, winning almost seems the only result
Updated Date: Jun 22, 2017 11:08:54 IST