The Hockey World League Finals 2017 by the Kalinga Stadium here in Bhubaneshwar, Odisha which will be the venue for the upcoming Hockey World Cup in 2018 has seen a spectacular tournament so far! India, the host nation, which was coming off a wonderful Gold medal at the Asia Cup after 10 years just continued its fine run into this mega 8-team event.
India, missing big guns in captain and legendary goalkeeper P.R.Sreejesh, commander in chief Sardar Singh along with seniors like Surinder Kumar and Nikkin Timmiah to give way to a younger team led by Manpreet Singh from the back. The team included U-19 recruits in Dipsan Tirkey (19), the localite and Sumit (20). Even then, the management made sure of a proper blend of experience and young blood through the inclusion of the thunderbolt southpaw S.V.Sunil in the front and penalty corner specialist Rupinderpal Singh in the defensive line with Birendra Lakra and the skipper sharing the midfield responsibilities. Akash Chitke and Suraj Karkera were in-charge under the bars.
The tournament kicked off for the men in blue against the top ranked Kookaburras. Both the teams struggled initially to adjust to the turf and to get going infront of the huge Bhubaneswar crowd. Even though both teams didn’t play all guns out, they gave enough glimses of their strengths and the equally young aussie team lead by veteran Mark Knowles had a wonderful outing.
The next game against the Great Britain and the Germany saw the Indian team go back to its old habit of faltering under pressure. Morever with such a young team, this defect seemed to be a lot more significant and there were moments when even the crowd caused an excess pressure on the Indian men.
In the game against Germany, the Europeans had a clear view of the Indians’ strength and played at restricting the men in blue to build on them. Even after a 2-0 lead early in the 3rd quarter, the visitors held a high line press to make sure that the swift Indian wingers never really got off to their speeds. The German defense had also marked the middle men with intensity that we saw a lot of crosses unattended. The man-to-man defense introduced by the Olympic bronze medallists ensured that the long passes and crosses were well intercepted and this lead to the hosts’ losing possession very frequently. Coming into the final quarter, the Indians lost a lot of the crowd support and the players also looked a lot exhausted continuously attacking against such intense defense. Two main tactics Indians delayed in execution are the high line press/ full press and the change of point of attack. Even though the German defense was well spread out and had a proper balance for a lot of the time, a switch in attack direction should have created space somewhere during the defensive drift. Manpreet Singh was the only go-to guy for building plays and he seemed to have faltered under this pressure against such a quality team.
Going into the knockouts from the bottom of group B, the hosts face the pool A toppers in Belgium in the quarterfinals. In the knockout game, it was a very different Indian team. In the previous 2 encounters against the European silver medallists, the Indians lost to them 1-3 and 0-1 early in the year and the critics were all out to writing off the world number 6 against the in-form and pool A toppers. But the World number 3 team didn’t seem like they have done enough of their homework and had their frontline defense so back that the quick Indian wingers found enough space to create runs into the opposition half several times. This rattled the defensive balance and distribution in their own half and the Belgians are forced to distort their formations. The Indian youngsters showed in a lot more energy and rotation skills as the Belgians were playing with a center approach that lead to several fastbreak attempts by the Indian quicks along the wings. This game clearly proved the improvement of quality in Indian hockey as the youngsters showed class in first touches, quick passes and having a proper vision and turf awareness. Harmanpreet Singh from the back was a point of inspiration with his crosses from the defense finding the long man in the opposition half successfully. The nerves showed by the youngsters during the shootout and in the dying minutes of the game to hold back the Olympic silver medalists was phenomenal.
Going another step closer to the title clash, the Indians face Olympic Champions Argentina in the semifinals today. The previous edition bronze medalists will be charged up to give all out against the PAN America Cup champions. The uncertain Indian team which has presented the crowd with contrasting performances so far in the tournament would look to put its best foot forward against the visitors who haven’t had a great tournament as well. The Lions coming off a 3-2 win against England just yesterday have been successful with a strategy of rotating the ball and building the play from the last defensive line and this shall be a challenge for the Indians to pose a full press from the word go as this tests the hosts stamina and agility! A lot of teams have mentioned that the crowd in Bhubaneshwar has played a very crucial role in favor of the hosts in games when the mental state of the players was tested, lets see how they come again in numbers to push India past the Argentines!
Keeping in mind that any team in the top 8 can beat any other team on a given day, two teams with mixed runs in the tournament will lock horns for a maiden spot in the apex battle! With loads of experience and no pressure comes Argentines contrary to the young blood in blues boosted by the wonderful local crowd who have been phenomenal throughout! Both the teams will look out to put their best foot forward and we are assured of a treat to our eyes as an intriguing contest of contrasting styles is on!