Consistency in performances will be key for the Indian men’s hockey team after a brief blip against France on an otherwise successful South Africa tour, while the women’s side would look to build on the momentum gained from a solid tournament debut in Oman when the teams return to the comforts of home to take on Spain in their respective FIH Pro League campaign ties on Saturday and Sunday.
It is not exactly a similar homecoming for the two Indian sides as the men play far more often at the iconic Kalinga Stadium while the women are returning after a gap to play top level matches at the venue. But the familiarity will offer comfort to both sides after tough away assignments in the recent past.
Indian men would start as favourites against Spain, who lost 1-6 and 2-3 against England in their opening double-leg tie.
Manpreet Singh and Co who won a bronze in the Tokyo Olympics, started their FIH Pro League campaign on a rousing note, beating France 5-0 before being a 2-5 by the same team in the return leg. Against hosts South Africa, India registered identical 10-2 wins in the two matches. All four matches were played in Potchefstroom, South Africa.
While the result against world No 12 France in the second match of the two-leg tie was below expectations for India, ranked fifth in the world, captain Manpreet Singh said the focus is on avoiding such mistakes as he looked forward to the Spain ties.
The Indians were guilty of not taking their chances against an ever-improving French side, that had drawn a match against the Netherlands only a little earlier before their win against India. It was by no means a poor performance by India, although the disappointment was evident for the standards they are trying to set themselves. But oddly enough, the result prompted a sharp response from Indian Olympic Association and FIH President Narinder Batra, who demanded an explanation for the setback. PTI reported that he even met Hockey India officials and chief coach Graham Reid after their return to the country.
It was a bizarre overreaction to what was evidently no more than a temporary setback and to those who watched the side play in the four matches, there were no real concerns over the overall gameplay. But as things go in Indian hockey sometimes, the pressure would now be high on the coaching staff and the players when they take on Spain. As incredible as it sounds, Reid and Manpreet would love for their side to make sure there are no more setbacks in a busy year that includes the Birmingham Commonwealth Games and the Hangzhou Asian Games, which is also a qualifier for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
On the field, the Indians tested two youngsters – dragflicker Jugraj Singh and striker Abhishek – in South Africa but only the latter could retain his place in the squad named for the Spain tie. Striker Sukhjeet Singh is the new addition to the squad and the youngster would be striving to make his presence felt on the turf.
The Harmanpreet Singh-led defence has been working on keeping its structure intact when put under pressure. It was one aspect that France exploited in their second match. Creating numerous chances in that match without taking too many was also a concern, and a better use of penalty corners, their main strength, will be critical. Harmanpreet also said ahead of the match the team has been looking to employ variations to tackle rush pressure from opponents.
“We have played against Spain at the Tokyo Olympics, so we know we cannot take them lightly,” Manpreet said ahead of the match. “They have a new Coach in Max Caldas, who was previously with the very successful Netherlands team. We saw and analysed Spain’s games against England and they performed really well. So, it is important for our team to make the most of every chance that come our way against Spain.”
This will be India’s first meeting against Spain since picking a 3-0 win against them in the Pool A match at the Tokyo Olympics last year. India vice-captain Harmanpreet Singh echoed his captain’s remarks and said India will have to switch on from the starting whistle against Spain.
“Spain are a very good team. They gave us a good fight at the Tokyo Olympics. We know we have to switch on from the starting whistle. We must maintain our structure that we have practiced at the training sessions. We have to execute our drills that we have worked on in the match efficiently,” Harmanpreet Singh said.
Spain coach Caldas said the group was still getting to know each other.
“Our expectations are to improve and try to be better each day. We are in the process of getting to know each other and are starting to develop our gameplan. In this process, every team has a few ups and downs. What we have to learn is when we do have a bad period, it does not cost us the game.
“India are a great side. They have a good mixture of experienced players and young kids coming through. They are very well coached and managed by Graham Reid and his staff. We hope to pose a challenge to the higher-ranked Indian team,” he added.
Spain captain Marc Miralles also spoke on the team’s preparedness and praised the ground staff at the Kalinga Stadium for offering a warm welcome.
“The weather is a bit hot in here. But our team has been preparing well. We are quite happy in Bhubaneswar. People are really nice which is really important for us because when you are from home for so many weeks, you need to feel welcomed,” Marc said.
Women look to continue winning momentum
After a solid start to their Pro League campaign that followed a slightly underwhelming bronze in the Asia Cup, the Indian women will look to produce a strong showing on their return to Odisha to take on world No 7 Spain, a tie that could be a perfect launch-pad to prepare the side for two key tournaments this year – the World Cup and the Hangzhou Asian Games.
On their debut, Savita Punia-led India beat China 7-1 and 2-1 in their opening two-leg tie in Muscat, Oman, earlier this year.
Continuing to lead the side in Rani Rampal’s injury-related absence, Savita said that playing against top teams in the FIH Pro League will be a good assessment of their game ahead of an important 2022 season, which also has the Birmingham Commonwealth Games.
“It will give us a fair idea about our strengths and weaknesses ahead of an important season,” Savita had said. “The Pro League is an important tournament for the World Cup and Asian Games. We have already qualified for the World Cup but every match in the Pro League will give us an idea on the grey areas we need to work upon. The Asian Games is also there which is an Olympic qualifier.”
The team, which finished a historic fourth in the Tokyo Olympics, faces a tricky opponent in world No 7 and current World Cup bronze-medallist Spain.
“Spain is a very good side. They won the bronze medal in the last World Cup. So, it is important for us to keep the momentum going. We need to give our best in every match,” Savita said.
India are currently placed third in the FIH Pro League standings with six points from two games and the skipper said they will continue to play to their strengths.
“Attacking hockey and penalty corners are our strength and we will focus on that (against Spain),” said the ace goalkeeper.
Under new coach Janneke Schopman, the team has been working on fast combination play, something that we saw in glimpses during the matches against China. The likes of Sharmila Devi, Salima Tete shone along the flanks, even if the ball turnover was an area of concern. The intent to play speedy hockey on the turf and not just sit back and soak pressure was evident, but Spain will offer a sterner test in that regard.
The Spanish women’s team had a closely fought 0-1 defeat against the mighty Netherlands followed by a 2-2 draw (and a shootout defeat) in the return leg.
“Spain are a good team. They have improved a lot in the past few years, and so have we. We have confidence in our team, and we will focus on ourselves. We will follow the plans and structure laid down by our Chief Coach Janneke Schopman,” Savita said.
The Indian goalkeeper also spoke about the hard training sessions the team is currently having in Bhubaneswar ahead of the two-legged tie against Spain.
“We are having hard sessions at the camp in Bhubaneswar. The conditions are very humid in this city and we have our sessions in the afternoon. But everyone trains with full energy, and we are getting used to the conditions. Everyone is excited to play at the Kalinga Hockey Stadium again. We feel we are improving each day,” Savita said.
Vice-captain Deep Grace Ekka said the team will look to continue the momentum in Bhubaneswar.
“We picked up a big 7-1 win over China in the first match, but we had to work really hard to come away with a 2-1 win in the second match. But we are proud of the hard work we showed to get that win and now against Spain, we will look to improve upon those performances and continue the momentum,” Ekka said, adding that the squad is working on providing more options from set-pieces apart from only relying on the brilliance of Gurjit Kaur.
Spain coach Adrian Lock, addressing the media at the virtual pre-match conference, said that while he was relatively happy with the performance against the Dutch, his team will not be taking India lightly.
“It would be dangerous to consider India as less dangerous than the Netherlands because of the amazing skills, the technical and individual talent that is spread throughout the country. I think India will really put our defence to a test, maybe even more so than the Dutch. We hope we can compete to the best of our abilities in the two games,” Lock added.
This will be the first meeting between India since the four-match series in Spain in January 2019. Spain captain Georgina Oliva echoed her Coach’s sentiments and said that her team has to keep a tight defence to get a positive result against India.
“We expect India to be really strong. They have already had an excellent tournament so far. They have been really improving over the years. We have to really focus on defensive strategies. It’s going to be a really exciting match,” Oliva said.
Saturday 26 February
India v Spain (women) 17:00
India v Spain (men) 19:30
Sunday 27 February
India v Spain (women) 17:00
India v Spain (men) 19:30
Matches will be telecast live on Star Sports Select 2, Star Sports Select 2 HD, and Hotstar.