Junior World Cup: India aims to breach Spanish armada in quarters

Having been awoken by its under-par performance against South Africa, a keen-to-improve Indian side is ready to take on Spain in the quarterfinals of the Junior Hockey World Cup on Thursday.

The Indians sharpened their attacking skills and worked out combinations upfront before concentrating on other areas of their game during a training session on Wednesday.   -  Rajeev Bhatt

The last time India took on Spain in the Hockey Junior World Cup in 2005, it ended up losing the bronze medal on penalties after a close-fought game. Coach Harendra Singh was in charge back then as well and the regret of missing out on a medal – he insists that team was good enough to play the final – remains a sore point for the man entrusted with bringing home the trophy, this time on home soil.

The Indians beat the Spaniards twice in the recent four-nation tournament in Valencia, which it won defeating Germany, the defending champion here, in the final. On paper, the host should move one step closer to achieving that target when it takes on the European side in the quarterfinals of the tournament at the Major Dhyan Chand Stadium here on Thursday but Harendra as well as the players know matches aren't won on paper.

India's last league game against South Africa, which it won 2-1, was the kind of wake-up call it needed before the business end of the tournament began and the team management seems to have decided to get tough on unnecessary errors. On Wednesday, the Indians practised for more than an hour in-camera, sharpening their attacking skills and working out combinations upfront before concentrating on other areas of the game. Understandable, given the plethora of chances the forwards have missed so far even as the Indian defence has stood firm barring a few occasional gaps.

Harmanpreet Singh and Varun Kumar have tackled well and have been pinpoint accurate in their long aerial passes, along with vice-captain and the wall of the side Dipsan Tirkey. But they have not been as effective in penalty corners, converting only two so far in three games. The forwards have earned the corners but have been wayward in their shooting and guilty of holding on too long inside the striking circle.

The positive for India is that, despite the shortcomings, the team has managed to stick together and cover up the weaknesses with captain Harjeet Singh being the key factor.

Also, the team has stuck to its structure despite conceding early and not repeated its mistakes, and coach Harendra is satisfied that his boys are looking inwards to improve. “Hockey is the most gadget-heavy sport in the world today. And when players spot their own errors and look at solutions, it becomes easier for the coach to explain strategies,” he admitted.

'No pressure'

However, against Spain, India would have to strike early and hard to force Spain out of its defence and try and score, which would suit the host.

For Spain, though, the fact that it managed to hang on to a draw against New Zealand in its last group match to edge out the Oceania runner-up from the last-eight would be a big confidence booster.

“That was a key match for us to stay in the race, now we do not have any pressure and that's when we play our best. India is the favourite side here for me but they are playing at home so they may have more pressure. We did have our chances against them in the second game in Valencia and we have some plans for them here, hopefully we will be able to get lucky with our chances,” coach Roger Pallarols said.