Two days, four matches, one nation, one dream.
Almost everyone expected the India men’s team to crush Russia and take their rightful spot in the Tokyo 2020 line-up. For the women, things were not as certain.
The skill gap that was apparent between the men’s team and Russia (evidenced by a 10-0 win earlier this year in June) was not as clear between the women and USA. This was going to be tight, this was going to go down to the wire and it did, just not in the way everyone thought it would.
Here is a look at what we learned from the matches as both Indian men and women’s teams sealed their spots at Tokyo 2020:
India women 6-5 USA women (aggregate)
Game 1: India 5-1 USA
Game 2: India 1-4 USA
We already knew that the women’s team had a first-half problem. They are poor starters even by poor-starter standards. They look lost in the middle and as has become the norm, allow the opposition to take command.
In both games against the USA, India sleep-walked through much of the first half. In Game 1, USA were not able to punish them. In Game 2, they scored four goals.
When USA head coach Janneke Schopman was asked at half-time in Game 2 about what had changed, her answer was simple: “Nothing. Just better in front of goal and perhaps, lucky.”
In each of the games, India head coach Sjoerd Marijne had to perform a miracle at the break. While on Friday the team stepped up to score four goals in 11 minutes, the challenge was starkly different 24 hours later. In Game 2, he did his best to take the pressure off the girls.
“At half-time I told the girls, it’s 0-0 (aggregate was 5-5),” said Marijne. “It’s your moment, go with your heads up. There’s pressure on the girls. The only thing you can do on the pitch is run. Because if you are running, you are not thinking about winning or losing.”
So perhaps it tells one that the problem for the women’s team is more in the mind than in their actual play. They take to the field thinking of too many things. But once they do settle on what they need to do, they are a very different side.
With the end goal in sight, it becomes easier to focus and at that point, the team morphs into possible world-beaters. If they can do this for the entire game, a medal might not be beyond them at Tokyo.
But before that, they also need to tackle another problem. They need to find players to support Rani Rampal and Gurjit Kaur, who share the goal-scoring burden in most games.
At the moment, the opposition knows that if it can shut down Rani during the match, India’s level falls to a manageable level and that is why Marijne will want more outlets before the team makes its journey to Tokyo.
At Rio Olympics, this team seemed overawed but three years since, this is now an experienced India outfit and they need to start holding themselves to a higher standard.
India men 11-3 Russia men (aggregate)
Game 1: Ind 4-2 Russia
Game 2: Ind 7-1 Russia
India are world No 5 and Russia are world No 22. And throughout the tie, the gap in skills was evident.
Another thing that was evident was how the Indian team felt it had to put on a show. They wanted to shine, they wanted to dazzle when all they needed to do was win.
The 11-3 aggregate scoreline flatters India. Russia were much better than that, they pushed India hard and not until the fourth quarter of Game 2 could the hosts really take it easy.
A desperate Russia defended well, attacked on the counter and ran their hearts out. While India seemed to think they had the tie in the bag even before it began, despite all the talk in the build-up about complacency not being an option.
During half-time in Game 2, head coach Graham Reid explained the problem in as simple a manner as possible: “We saw a little bit of Bollywood in the first half, need to cut that out. Need to keep things simple.”
The moment India got down to basics, they opened up the Russian defence with ease. India’s ball movement is up among the best on their day and they were clearly faster but for most part, they didn’t just want to win; they wanted to dominate Russia.
And in that, they perhaps got ahead of themselves. The defence remains a concern and Rupinder Pal Singh really needs to work on that aspect of his game, and cannot be a starter just for his drag-flick skills. He went to sleep for Russia’s first goal in the second leg, but thankfully for him, that jolted his team awake.
This Indian team can run but against better teams, Akashdeep Singh and Mandeep Singh need to be more clinical in front of goal. And not just in terms of getting their shots on target but also earning penalty corners, which will allow Harmanpreet Singh and Rupinder to put their flicking skills to good use.
During the tour of Belgium in October, India didn’t lose a single game. The World No 5 won all five matches during the Tour, beating reigning World and European champions Belgium 2-0 in the opening match, and registering 6-1 and 5-1 wins over Spain in the next two games, before finishing off their Tour with two more wins (2-1 and 5-1).
This is a team that can end India’s Olympic medal drought but for that to happen, they need to believe in the process and not stray from it. No Bollywood when theatre will do just as well. Against Russia, for a while, they seemed to fall back on their old habits. Against better teams, that won’t be an option.