The Indian men’s hockey team embarks on a new journey under recently-appointed chief coach Graham Reid as the FIH Series Finals begins in Bhubaneshwar on Thursday.
Besides top-ranked India, the other participating teams in Pool A are Poland, Russia and Uzbekistan while Pool B consists of South Africa, Asian Games champions Japan, USA and Mexico.
Placed fifth in world rankings, India will start the tournament as overwhelming favourites, given the vast gap between the hosts and other teams in terms of quality, skills and stature in world hockey.
South Africa at 16 and Japan at 18 are the next closest sides in the tournament in terms of rankings.
But more importantly, this is the beginning of a long road for Tokyo 2020 qualification for the eight-time champions India who missed out on a berth by not winning the gold at Asian Games.
India’s best chance to qualify for the Olympics was through the Jakarta Asian Games but they failed to qualify for the final after losing to Malaysia in the semifinals.
Road to Tokyo 2020
- According to the new FIH (International Hockey Federation) structure, the countries that are not part of the Hockey Pro League, will have to play the Hockey Series or win their respective continental events.
- A minimum of 15 nations will qualify from the Hockey Series Open for one of three Hockey Series Finals, where they will meet the top nine nations in the FIH Hero World Rankings not playing in the Hockey Pro League.
- Each of the Hockey Series Finals will have eight nations (five from the Hockey Series Open and three who are among the top-nine in the world rankings) playing in them and will take place at three venues across the world between May and June 2019.
- The top two teams from each of the three Hockey Series Finals will then head to the Olympic qualification matches. These six teams will be joined by the four qualifiers from the Hockey Pro League and the two highest placed nations in the world rankings (at the end of the 2019 Continental Championships) not already qualified via the Hockey Series Finals or Pro League.
- The 12 men’s and 12 women’s nations will compete for a total of six spots in the Olympic Games, with the winners joining hosts Japan and the five continental champions who automatically qualify for Tokyo 2020.
- The six Olympic Qualification Events will each feature two nations playing two back-to-back matches, with nations drawn to play each other based on their rankings at the end of the 2019 Continental Championships. The nation who scores the highest aggregate score over the two matches will qualify for the Olympics.
- The FIH Olympic qualifiers are scheduled for October and November 2019 and the matches will be hosted by the higher ranked of the two competing nations.
- Read more about the qualification phase here.
Test for Reid
The FIH Series Finals is India’s first step towards qualifying for the Tokyo Games.
The tournament will serve as first real test for Australian Graham Reid, who was appointed as Harendra Singh’s successor in April this year following India’s dismal World Cup campaign in December last year.
And it remains to be seen how Reid handles the enormous burden of expectations which many of his predecessors like Terry Walsh, Paul van Ass, Michaels Nobbs etc. failed to handle.
The problem for Reid, a former coach of the Australian men’s hockey team, is that he doesn’t have enough time and will have to deliver the results instantly, especially under Hockey India, which has a habit of firing coaches at its will.
India’s squad and fixtures
India will open its campaign against underdogs Russia and will be expected to win the encounter by a huge margin but to finish on top the hosts will have to overcome their knock-out jitters as has been the case in the past.
After the match against Russia, India will face Poland on Friday before taking on Uzbekistan in their final pool game on June 10.
Failure to reach the final will be a disaster for the erstwhile giants of the game, who are expected to win the tournament and qualify for the final round of Olympic Qualifiers.
Schedule for Men’s Series Finals (Timings in IST)
June 6, Thursday - Pool A - India vs Russia - 7pm
June 7, Friday - Pool A - India vs Poland - 7pm
June 10, Monday - Pool A - India vs Uzbekistan - 7pm
June 12, Wednesday - Crossover phase
June 14, Friday
- Semifinal 1 - 1st Pool A vs Winner of C2 - 5pm
- Semifinal 2 - 1st Pool B vs Winner of C1 - 7.15pm
India have fielded a strong side for the tournament with striker Ramandeep Singh returning to the side after nearly a year following a knee injury that almost jeopardised his career. The tournament will also be a big test for senior goalkeeper PR Sreejesh, who would look for a fine show to prolong his career.
Reid made his intentions clear that it is form which matters by dropping Rupinder Pal Singh. Instead, he has trusted Harmanpreet Singh, Varun Kumar and Amit Rohidas to deliver the goods from penalty corners.
India’s midfield is in the safe hands of skipper Manpreet Singh, who will have the support of Vivek Sagar Prasad, Nilkanta Sharma and Hardik Singh as they hope to link up with the strike force that includes Akashdeep Singh and Mandeep Singh among others.
But the Indians will have to improve upon their finishing and avoid conceding last minute goals.
(With PTI inputs)
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