Hockey Olympic Qualifiers: India men's and women's teams gear up for Tokyo challenge

The Indian men and women are favourites, the men expected to roll over their opponents Russia and the women advance past the USA by virtue of their higher rank.

Coach Sjoerd Marijne is confident that the Indian women's team is up to the challenge.   -  BISWARANJAN ROUT

Two days before the teams take their final steps on the road to Tokyo and hope to book their tickets for the 2020 Olympics, Bhubaneswar is devoid of the buzz that normally accompanies a major sporting event here.

Blame it on the opposition or the fact that it would be just a two-day affair. Even the teams decided to take a break from training and preferred to recharge themselves.

The two days, though, would be crucial. The Indian men and women are favourites, the men expected to roll over their opponents Russia – the lowest-ranked side in the qualifiers – and the women advance past the USA by virtue of their higher rank and home support.

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But for all the spotlight that the men get, clearly a priority for those running the show, it is the women’s face-off that guarantees an exciting battle. Despite being up by a few notches at the moment, the Indian women are far behind in terms of top-level experience and performance.

The USA has a bronze at Olympics (1984) and was 5th in Rio – where India finished last. The 2019 edition of Pan-American Games was only the second time it failed to reach the final. And yet, India managed to edge them out of the knockouts the last time the two played, at the 2018 World Cup.

“Our focus is clearly on our game. Yes, you should know the strengths and weaknesses of your opponent but not be obsessed with it so much that you forget your own game! Having said that, when you do well against a team, there is greater confidence of doing so again,” captain Rani Rampal said.

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“To be honest, I feel we could have actually done better than a draw against them in the World Cup, we were better than that. Since then, we have improved a lot and I am sure they have worked hard too. The good thing is, that was a pressure game for us – we had to avoid a loss to stay in the competition. It’s the same this time around so that experience will certainly help,” she added.

Coach Sjoerd Marijne, meanwhile, is confident his girls are up to the challenge. “The way I have experienced the crowd in Bhubaneswar, they are very supportive. But it is about how to deal with the moment and it is very hard to train for that. The England tour was important because it helped the girls stay in rhythm, else we would not have played for 3-4 months which is too much,” Marijne said.

It remains to be seen if Bhubaneswar would oblige again.

Lakra replaces Varun

Meanwhile, the Indian men’s team received a last-moment jolt with defender and drag-flicker Varun Kumar replaced by experienced Birendra Lakra for the two-leg clash. Varun hurt his right shoulder and bicep during training on Monday and was unable to recover in time for the weekend games. Lakra was part of the Indian team that played the Hockey Series Finals in June here and also toured Europe for the preparatory series last month.