The build-up to India’s match against Canada on Saturday is much toned down, compared to their previous contest against Belgium.

Understandable it is, to an extent. For, the fear of getting out of the group stage is no more there. A loss against Belgium would have put the hosts in a perilous position. But with a 2-2 draw last Sunday, wherein the Belgians scored the second goal four minutes before the finish, India are atop Pool C with four points with a better goal difference. Theoretically, all teams in Pool C can finish with four points if India lose to Canada and South Africa beat Belgium on Saturday. In such a case, the goal difference will be the primary determiner of the teams’ fates. And, India’s goal difference of five means that only a heavy defeat to Canada can threaten their progress in the tournament if South Africa manages a big (and unlikely) upset against Belgium. A Belgian victory would rule out India’s exit from the tournament.

But Indian coach Harendra Singh, known to visit a temple before India’s games, wouldn’t necessarily pray for Belgium’s victory. For, he expects his boys to deliver an emphatic win against Canada and finish atop Pool C. Such a victory would provide the Indians, apart from the morale-boost, a four-day rest for the quarter-finals (on Thursday). If India manages to finish second or third in the group, they will need to play a cross-over match against a team from Pool D (Germany/ the Netherlands/Pakistan/Malaysia) on Tuesday and, if they win, the quarter-final on Thursday.

Rankings don’t matter

Coach Harendra’s been repeating in his interactions with the media that his team’s “taking it one match at a time.” Even if India were secretly plotting their path to the quarter-final and beyond, France’s stunning win against Olympic champions Argentina would have cautioned them. France were expected to make a quiet exit from Pool A after losing to Argentina but they beat them 5-3 to make it to the cross-overs.

That India are ranked fifth and Canada 11th don’t matter much now.

“I have said it from the start and everybody should now agree with me. I saw about China, Japan and France (as teams of the future). For me, in modern sports, especially in a team sport, ranking and numbers are to write on paper,” he said. “Every team that comes to a major tournament wants to play the last match on last day. Small teams want to prove that they deserve to be here.”

Looking at their recent encounters, India wouldn’t take Canada for granted.

Last five India v Canada matches

June 2017 Hockey World League Semi-Final India 2-3 Canada
June 2017 Hockey World League Semi-Final India 3-0 Canada
August 2016 Olympics India 2-2 Canada
April 2016 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup  India 3-1 Canada
April 2015 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup  India 5-3 Canada
Source: FIH

Canada pipped India 3-2 the last time they met to finish fifth in the Hockey World League Semi-Final. Two years ago, in the Rio Olympics, they held the men in blue to a 2-2 draw and forced them to play favourites Belgium in the last-eight.

Harendra, however, had said that he isn’t bothered about those results.

But Canada is a defensive side that likes to test the patience of the opposition and strike only when an opportunity arises. Against such sides, India have struggled in the past – notably against Malaysia in the Asian Games semi-final, where they conceded a goal in the last minute, which led to a shootout that they lost 6-7.

Canada’s coach Paul Bundy and skipper Scott Tupper told the media that their team’s feeling no pressure.

“It is going to be a difficult game but we are going to be very competitive. We don’t have pressure on us. You guys (the media) can bring the pressure on them. They are playing in front of a billion people. For us this is an exciting opportunity,” said Bundy.

India will be taking on Canada after Belgium’s match against South Africa. They, hence, will know precisely what needs to be done to qualify for the quarter-finals.

But Harendra played down this advantage. “It doesn’t matter what happens in the game between Belgium and South Africa. We want to compete well irrespective of that result. We want to finish on top of the group and we want to go through without conceding a goal against Canada.”