“In rankings we are 22nd but in our souls we are quite high. We came here to fight and it will be a good battle. That is a promise,” Russia coach Vladimir Konkin declared, speaking through a translator.
It might appear bravado from a team expected to provide little resistance to the Indian men in the two-game hockey Olympic qualifiers here, but the host would do well to take it seriously.
Fifth-seeded India would do well to remember how Pakistan nearly pulled off an upset before succumbing to Dutch superiority last week.
That was one of the lessons learnt by the Indian management. “My message has been pretty much the same ever since I joined the team. Always treat everyone with respect, like you are playing the best in the world. We have prepared as well as we could and are ready,” coach Graham Reid said on Thursday.
Captain Manpreet Singh was more candid about guarding against complacency, being one of those who felt its full impact in the Asian Games semifinals.
“Our mindset should only be about winning. The seniors like Rupinder Pal Singh or P.R. Sreejesh keep telling the youngsters to never think it would be easy. We cannot assume things on the basis of rankings,” he said.
When the Russians last came here in June, they struggled to adjust to the searing heat and yet finished a respectable fifth, beat higher-ranked Poland and almost upset South Africa. The Indians were also guilty of lethargy in the first half back then.
Drag-flick specialist Semen Matkovskiy was the joint top-scorer of the tournament with Varun Kumar and Harmanpreet Singh, the former out this time with injury. The conditions are a lot better this time around for the visitors.
India is still expected to have an easy outing over the two games. The difference in quality, experience and skill-set is too vast. And yet, the team has been going all out in its training sessions here with coach Reid prepared for all possible scenarios.
Asked if the team had shoot-outs at the back of its mind, Reid acquiesced. “We have talked about it, we always practice shoot-outs. The players are always prepared,” he agreed.
The team would be looking to finish the tie long before that.
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