05 August, Rio de Janeiro
P R Srejeesh-led Indian Hockey team, with their best global ranking in 11 years at fifth spot, will launch their Olympic hockey campaign against Ireland, here tomorrow.
In the 12-nation Olympic competition, teams are divided in two pools and India is clubbed in Pool B with defending champions Germany, twice winners and London 2012 silver medalist the Netherlands, Argentina, Canada, besides Ireland.
On the other hand, Pool A comprises World number one Australia, 1988 gold medalist Great Britain, Montreal Olympic champions New Zealand, Belgium, Spain and hosts Brazil.
India has steadily climbed the world ranking ladder with a string of noteworthy performances for the past two years, including podium finishes at the London Champions Trophy and the World Hockey League at Raipur.
However, after the well fought London final in June against Australia, the Indians met a setback in the six nation tournament at Valencia finishing fifth behind Germany, Argentina, New Zealand and Spain.
The euphoria of the Champions Trophy success also seemed to lose some sheen after the stopover at Madrid enroute Rio as they were beaten by Spain in both matches.
India need to push their recent showing to the backburner and foray in this Olympic campaign with renewed vigour and self belief. The squad includes seven faces from the London Games where they plummeted to an abysmal depth finishing last.
However under skipper Sreejesh, they are an extremely fit and hugely talented side with a vast repertoire of individual brilliance which needs to be harnessed into errorless onfield cohesion to produce results.
Coach Roelant Oltmans has worked relentlessly for the past year focusing on the defensive structure, penalty corner variations, combative midfield play and upfront marksmanship.
India has a formidable trio of set piece drag flickers in their armour. On their day Rupinder Pal Singh, Raghunath and young Harmanpreet Singh are capable of destroying the best opposition with their flicks but consistency is the key. They are well complemented by Kothajit Singh and Surender Kumar in the deep defence.
India’s midfield will be stretched to its fullest where the well experienced talisman Sardar Singh along with fellow central pivot Manpreet will need to rise many notches to thwart rival sorties and propel the team onslaughts. Veteran Danish Mujtaba, SK Uthappa, Chinglensana Singh and Devindar Walmiki complete the midfield lineup.
Vice captain SV Sunil will spearhead the Indian attack with his guile and dash on the wings likely to wrong foot many. He should create many openings for the central strikers Akashdeep Singh and his cousin Ramandeep in the circle. The former has the wily knack of the finest deflections but the latter will have to be careful not to overdo his reverse stickplay. Nikkin Thimmaiah will be largely seen on the left flank and his uncanny off the ball movements could spell trouble.
India will look to clear the first hurdle with wins against Ireland and Canada and qualify for the knockout round.
Oltmans, who is confident of team’s good showing, said, “We are looking at eight wins- five in the league and three in knock out” he said in response to a query that his side needs to win only two matches in the pool assignments to make the knock out stage.”
“We have prepared well, the boys are fit and focused and they are not taking any team lightly,” he said adding “Ireland is a dangerous side. Remember they have beaten Great Britain and are third in Europe behind Germany and Belgium.”
He was full of praise for youngsters who according to him have combined perfectly with the experienced players.
Talking about Sardar Singh, the coach said, “Well his role will be like in soccer a number 10 player” and went on to say that “You will see Sardar Singh as a player you have not seen before.”