As a team, as individual performers, as a diverse set playing the Championship, as a unit with sublime skills, the Indian women face a test that either pushes them into the cross-over matches or sends them home; from a team that promised much, they might become a bunch that never delivered. Standing between them and redemption of sorts is the world's seventh ranked team, USA.
India don't need to look beyond the World Cup for inspiration. In their own group, they have Ireland, ranked 16th, six places below them, sitting on top of Pool B with six points and direct qualification for the quarter-finals. Italy, lowest ranked at 17th in Pool A, have six points and a guaranteed cross-over slot. Belgium, ranked 13th, have snatched a cross-over match and so did Spain, who are 11th in the FIH rankings.
Italy have been the revelation of the World Cup, solid in defence with some crackling counter-attack ability and playing at the World Cup for the first time in 42 years. After beating South Korea, a delighted Eugenia Bianchi said: “We are so pleased to come here and make history. We are the lowest ranked team and when we saw what Ireland achieved we were so pleased as it showed that the lower ranked teams can do this.”
Italy also have an Indian origin player — Jasbeer Singh, daughter of Inder Singh who was in the 1966 Bangkok Asian Games team that won gold; and so motivation shouldn’t be far off for the Indian bunch, who face elimination unless they put up a display that would at least momentarily dispel the demons seen in the encounter against the 16th-ranked Ireland.
If India need to create the chances they did against Ireland, they would have to break through the powerful American midfield that along with pace has wonderful possession qualities which India somehow couldn’t display against the Irish.
Speaking to PTI, coach Sjoerd Marijne said, “The team’s structure and planning is good, which enabled us to create chances in the striking circle but not being able to convert these chances into goals cost us the match (against Ireland).”
“We made 27 circle entries against Ireland while it was only 10 against England. Though playing against these two teams is very different from each other, it is frustrating that we could not convert a single goal from these chances (15 shots on goal) against Ireland.”
Marijne says it’s a positive aspect to get shots but the strikes were too wayward and too individualistic in its build-up. India skipper Rani Rampal will have to consciously look at building up with Vandana Katariya or the constantly overlapping Neha Goyal. It has been seen at the World Cup that cutting in from the flanks, on the line, has been easier for speedy players. But going down the middle, as Rani does at times, is easier for the defence to tackle. Skills also mean knowing when to steer the ball to another player or affect another classical build-up by having either the defence come up or keep a flanking midfielder at the back.
Against England, India did defend in numbers but for long stretches they looked confident and were very disciplined. Against Ireland, they seem scattered, not sure what to do in which circumstance. Once the Irish had made India chase the 1-0 scoreline, they cleverly bunched them up on the flanks and then opened the space for their astute and brilliant Anna Flanagan to raid the Indian defence.
Both India and the USA are on a point each with victory assuring third spot. A draw would benefit India as they have a minus one goal difference compared to minus two for the Americans.
India cannot afford mistakes against the USA. The Americans are a relatively young team. They have seven players who have 100-plus caps with only two crossing the 200 mark – skipper Melissa Gonzalez and Michelle Vittese. Nine players haven’t even earned 50 caps. Contrast this with the Indians — 10 players have 100-plus caps; three have 200-plus caps and three have 50-plus caps. The ones with 200-plus: Rani, Vandana and Deepika will have to be the ones leading the brigade.
Marijne said, “When we play USA, the emphasis would certainly be on scoring from these opportunities created. We have to execute better and the girls are working for that.” Critics would, of course, point to the fact that training and ‘working’ comes at the camp. At the World Cup, execution is top priority. And that is where the team needs to come together.
Early goals have been an issue for India. Chasing is tough and needlessly becomes tense. So the search for an early goal is imperative. Taking risks early in the first quarter may pay off for India in a match which is of so much importance to both the teams. In terms of stats, USA holds the upper hand. In 28 matches, India have won only four, drawn eight and lost 16. In the World Cup, both the teams clashed once in 1983, which the Americans won 1-0. In their last encounter in July 2017, India had lost 1-4.
Yet, the silver lining is that like India at this World Cup, the USA too are stuttering. But to prove that the team can come up with the goods when the chips are down or when faced with the prospect of elimination, India will need to push their midfield strongly and understand that holding the ball has its merits only when it’s done to gain territory or create space, not to showcase skills and then run into an army of defensively proficient players.
India cannot win without stretching play across the pitch. And when they do that, Deepika becomes that offensive player which was sorely missed against Ireland. She has the physical strength to come up and whack those hits to both the corners of the flanks.
In fact, against the Irish, the Indian team never arrived. A key component is to understand the opposition defence. India couldn’t even decipher Flanagan’s PC runs against Gurjit Kaur. Hopefully, those mistakes would have been rectified when they take on the very structured Americans.
The other aspect is the penalty corner drill, which didn’t get an opportunity against England and completely collapsed against the Irish, where seven chances were blown away. In key encounters, pressure gets to the best and India will have chances if they can bamboozle the Americans with indirect attempts.
The Americans finished fourth in the last World Cup and only once have picked up a medal, a bronze, in the 1994 World Cup. Against India, they would be fighting to squeeze into the cross-overs. For India, much is at stake. Win, lose or draw India need to play with exuberance, freedom, zest and vigour. It’s time to be astute and use that experience.
Updated Date: Jul 29, 2018 12:33 PM