At the 2018 FIH Hockey Men’s World Cup, three of the four pool toppers crashed out in the quarterfinals. The two finalists, Belgium and the Netherlands, finished second in their respective pools and had to go through the crossovers.
India’s chief coach Graham Reid hopes by playing the crossover match against New Zealand, India can build momentum, and like Belgium and the Netherlands four years ago, reach the final of the 2023 FIH Men’s Hockey World Cup.
“The two teams that played in the final in the 2018 World Cup were the ones that came second in their pool. Whether that has anything to do with having a break or not having a break, who knows? I think it is good to keep the momentum up to be honest. It’ll be good for us. Yeah, it would have been great if we had topped the Pool but this is where we are and it’s a good challenge for us,” Reid said at the pre-match press conference.
In New Zealand, India face a side that has underperformed according to their standards, having scored only five goals as well as losing to lower-ranked Malaysia in the group stage. However, like Reid, New Zealand coach Greg Nicols also hopes that his side can finally get going in the knockouts.
The mind games began when Nicols said that as hosts, India are favourites and will be under pressure from the first minute of the match, something the Black Sticks will be hoping to cash on to cause an upset.
In response, Reid said: “They’ve got nothing to lose from their point of view. All the pressure is on India, that’s true. However, I back my players to stand up under pressure. Nothing has changed from my point of view when I said at the start of the tournament that if we play well, we can beat any team here.”
India have a superior head-to-head record against the Black Sticks having won four of the previous five meetings. The last time these two sides met, India recorded 7-4 and 4-3 wins in the ongoing FIH Pro League season. Since then, India’s defence has shored up while the attack has lost its steam.
“We’ve played them earlier and we’ve also let some in. We were changing, we were still trying to work out who our set six were and we have done that now. But now our defence has become tighter and more set than it was in the Pro League. I expect a stronger defensive performance,” Reid said.
Hardik Singh, who had injured his hamstring in the pool match against England, was ruled out of the tournament on Saturday with India replacing him with the young Raj Kumar Pal. India had another injury scare during practice on Saturday when star forward Mandeep Singh limped off with a knee injury. Reid refused to address Mandeep’s injury in the press conference.
Should Mandeep not feature against New Zealand, there will be increased pressure on the likes of Akashdeep Singh, Lalit Kumar Upadhyay and Abhishek to step up and deliver. While Akashdeep came back into form by netting a brace against Wales, Lalit and Abhishek haven’t been able to make a mark so far in Odisha.
Another concern for India has been their penalty corner conversion rates. India have only scored twice from penalty corners, once from a rebound and the other when the opposition goalkeeper had been taken off. Regardless of the manner in which it came, finally being able to score from a penalty corner should have released some of the pressure off Harmanpreet Singh and could mark his return to goalscoring form right when the team needs him most.
On Saturday, India focused on addressing their scoring issues. The team played 4v4 and 5v5 matches to work on how to create and exploit space without crowding before splitting into two groups and working on their penalty corner routines.
“Just before the (Wales) game, we found out that we need to score eight goals or whatever it was which goes through the head and therefore instead of doing the normal stuff, we perhaps overcompensated. Looking at the video (of the match) since then, I was much more happy with the performance. We talked about spaces in the circle to create and not crowding it. I think that also happens when everyone’s trying to score goals. Hopefully, we can fix that,” Reid said.
New Zealand have the potential to be a banana skin for India but can also prove to be the right kind of team for India to finally start firing on all cylinders.