India looks to re-write its way into history books

Coach Harendra Singh and manager Roelant Oltmans have indicated that there was still "room for improvement" and that the players would be looking to play the perfect game in the title clash against surprise finalist Belgium.

The Indian players celebrate after entering the final.   -  Rajeev Bhatt

When the Indian hockey juniors step out on the turf at the Major Dhyan Chand Stadium here one last time on Sunday night, they would be hoping to not just reclaim the title for the first time in 15 years but also write history as the first team to win the World Cup on home soil.

The host started as favourite for the title and, despite a few niggles and concerns, has lived up to the billing, producing its best show in the semifinals against Australia. Coach Harendra Singh and manager Roelant Oltmans have indicated that there was still “room for improvement” and that the players would be looking to play the perfect game in the title clash against surprise finalist Belgium, out to create history of its own by lifting the title for the first time ever.

The Indian defence has been impressive so far and goalkeeper Vikas Dahiya proved he was up to the challenge in the shoot-out on Friday but with other teams preferring to sit deep in their defence and only counter-attack occasionally, the defence has had few problems.

It is the attack that has been erratic. Mandeep Singh, when in form, is a delight with his running and shooting but has been mistrapping and out of position often. Parvinder Singh, Gurjant Singh and Vikramjit Singh have been off and on while Harjeet Singh and Simranjit Singh have done well holding up the midfield and linking up to the front, along with Armaan Qureshi and Sumit Kumar who have put in the hard yards.

The way India has been attacking, Harmanpreet Singh and Varun Kumar have been seen more often in the opposition half, which has been worked well to created gaps but they have had to back-pedal fast to defend. They would have to do that against Belgium as well, which has turned its defensive structure into an art and relied on it to get the better of attacking teams like Germany and Netherlands. The only team to trouble it was an equally defensive Argentina. As such, an early lead would help India open up the opposition defence.

India, on the other hand, struggled against the one team that boasts of an equally qually tight defence — Spain. “Belgium is strong, there is no doubt it. But at the same time, against every opponent you get your opportunities. Against Belgium also we will get them,” Harendra said. The positive for India has been the way it has bounced back from a goal down thrice here.

Belgium, which has never made it to even the semifinals of the tournament before, is out to make history of its own and coach Jeroen Baart knows the importance of the game for his wards. “It’s been a dream for the boys. They have been working towards it for two and a half years. They have sacrificed a lot. I think our PC attacks need more focus. If we bring in the same defensive discipline (in the final) we showed against Germany, I will be happy,” Baart said.

On Saturday, New Zealand beat South Africa 4-1 to finish at ninth spot while Malaysia edged past Austria 2-1 in a shoot-out to finish 11th after the teams were tied 2-2 in regulation time. Argentina and Spain, meanwhile, would face-off for the fifth spot after winning their respective games against England and Netherlands in the 5-8 place classification games.

The results: 5/8 place: Argentina 3 (Nicolas Acosta, Ignacio Nepote, Maico Casella) bt England 0; Spain 2 (Llorenc Piera Grau, Lucas Garcia Alcalde) bt Netherlands 1 (Jorrit Croon); 11/12 place: Malaysia 2 (Aiman Nik Rosemi, Mohamad Zulhamizan) bt Austria 2 (Oliver Binder, Peter Kaltenbock) in shootout (2-1 in SO); 9/10 place: New Zealand 4 (Max Wilcox 2, Brad Read, Dylan Thomas) bt South Africa 1 (Courtney Halle).

Sunday's schedule: 7/8 place: England vs Netherlands (11.15 a.m.), 5/6 place: Argentina vs Spain (1.30 p.m.), bronze medal playoff: Germany vs Australia (3.45 p.m.), final: India vs Belgium (6 p.m.).