There was a bit of an apprehension about this Indian team, coached by Harendra Singh, before they travelled to Netherlands for the final edition of the Champions Trophy.
They had heartbreakingly lost two straight games in the Commonwealth Games to return without a medal. This resulted in an upheaval – there was a change of the head coach and, resultantly, the team’s thought process, strategies and structures.
So, there was a doubt before the the tournament began in Breda if the last edition’s runners-up can quickly adapt to the changes and do well in a six-nation tournament, where four teams were ranked higher than them.
But on Saturday, Harendra Singh’s men put the doubts to rest as they made it – for the second straight time – to the final of the Champions Trophy. Like last year, they will meet the mighty Australians, the top-ranked side in the world, in the summit clash.
The Indian performance in this tournament has been commendable, but not without flaws. After starting their campaign with two straight victories – against arch-rivals Pakistan and Olympic champions Argentina – India went down 2-3 to the team they will take on in the final on Sunday.
Then, they scraped through against Belgium with a 1-1 draw, thanks to goalkeeper PR Sreejesh, who’s been brilliant throughout the tournament. And, the draw against Netherlands, too, was a nail-biting one, and the visitors almost won.
On the last day of the Champions Trophy, against the best team in the world, India need to lift their game if they fancy winning the last edition of the tournament, which they have never won before.
Here’s what they need to do:
Get off the blocks quickly
Australia, in this tournament, have scored seven of their 13 goals within the first half, three of which came in the first quarter itself; two of those, they scored against India. The men in blue, in most matches of the tournament, have taken some time to settle in and work out a rhythm. Their opponents, hence, have looked to sneak an early goal.
The Kangaroos, in the group stage, succeeded in getting away with two goals. Against Belgium, too, Sreejesh made three saves within the first quarter and denied them an early lead. India need to be off the blocks quickly against the Australians, one of the quickest-moving teams in the world.
Maintain a solid defence
Sreejesh has been exceptional throughout the tournament – he almost single-handedly denied the Belgians a win – but he’s also been backed up well by the defenders. The 4-0 win against Pakistan might suggest a complete domination by the Indians, but this was largely possible to the almost impeccable defence showcased by Harendra Singh’s men.
The Pakistani attack threatened constantly but the Indians were upto the mark. The match against Pakistan was arguably India’s best performance in this tournament, but even in the other four matches, they have been solid in defence.
Belgium and Netherlands had over 30 circle penetrations against India but they both managed to score only once. Even while defending penalty corners, Indians haven’t flinched whilst running in and putting their bodies on the line to cut away the angles of the opponent striking the ball.
However, Manpreet Singh, who did this on several occasions, has been carrying a niggle since the second match of the tournament.
Strengthen the midfield
This niggle has not allowed Manpreet to play to his potential. After the win against Pakistan, he has looked a shadow of himself. So, there was more responsibility on Sardar Singh to be the team’s sole playmaker. And because he’s often left alone, opposition teams have found it easy to mark him.
Sardar isn’t the livewire he used to be a few years ago, so he would need Manpreet to be at his best against the Australians. With their sheer pace and physicality, the Kangaroos broke the solid Indian barrier of defence in the group stage. A lot depends on the Indian midfield to intercept the ball from them and feed it to the forward line in the final.
Better conversion of penalty corners
This has been an area that the Indians have been trying to fix for a long time. They have converted just four of the 20 penalty-corner opportunities in the last four games. Against the Netherlands, India could have taken an early lead but they failed to convert two PCs in the first half.
They have, however, surprised the opposition by not employing the routine trap-and-strike tactic. Against the Australians, it’s more pertinent to capitalise on the PC chances, for, the Indians would find it difficult than they did with other teams to construct a field goal.