The Indian men’s hockey team embarks on a new journey under recently-appointed chief coach Graham Reid as the eight-time champions start its quest for 2020 Tokyo Olympics qualification with the FIH Series Finals which begins on Thursday.
Eight teams from Asia, Europe, Africa and North America will battle it out for two places in the FIH Olympic Qualifiers scheduled to held in October-November later this year. Besides top-ranked India, the other participating teams in Pool A are Poland, Russia and Uzbekistan while Pool B consists of South Africa, Asian Games champions Japan, USA and Mexico.
Placed fifth in world rankings, India will start the tournament as overwhelming favourites, given the vast gap between the hosts and other teams in terms of quality, skills and stature in world hockey. South Africa at 16 and Japan at 18 are the next closest sides in the tournament in terms of rankings.
India will open its campaign against minnows Russia and expected to win the encounter by a huge margin but to finish on top the hosts will have to overcome their knock-out jitters as has been the case in the past. India’s best chance to qualify for the Olympics was through the Jakarta Asian Games but they failed to qualify for the final after losing to Malaysia in the semifinals.
In this year’s Azlan Shah Cup too India failed to claim the title despite being the top side, losing to South Korea in the summit clash. The FIH Series Finals is India’s first step towards qualifying for the Tokyo Games. The tournament will serve as first real test for Australian Graham Reid, who was appointed as Harendra Singh’s successor in April this year following India’s dismal World Cup campaign in December last year.
And it remains to be seen how Reid handles the enormous burden of expectations which many of his predecessors like Terry Walsh, Paul van Ass, Michaels Nobbs etc. failed to handle.
The problem for Reid, a former coach of the Australian men’s hockey team, is that he doesn’t have enough time and will have to deliver the results instantly, especially under Hockey India, which has a habit of firing coaches at its will.
After the match against Russia, India will face Poland on Friday before taking on Uzbekistan in their final pool game on June 10.
Failure to reach the final will be a disaster for the erstwhile giants of the game, who are expected to win the tournament and qualify for the final round of Olympic Qualifier. India have fielded a strong side for the tournament with striker Ramandeep Singh returning to the side after nearly a year following a knee injury that almost jeopardised his career.
The tournament will also be a big test for senior goalkeeper P.R. Sreejesh, who would look for a fine show to prolong his career. Reid made his intentions clear that it is form which matters and not a big name by dropping Rupinder Pal Singh. Instead, he trusted Harmanpreet Singh, Varun Kumar and Amit Rohidas to deliver the goods from penalty corners.
India’s midfield is in the safe hands of skipper Manpreet Singh, who will have the support of Vivek Sagar Prasad, Nilkanta Sharma and Hardik Singh as they hope to link up with the strike force that includes Akashdeep Singh and Mandeep Singh among others. But the Indians will have to improve upon their finishing and avoid conceding last minute goals to avoid a disaster here.
“Our finishing has been a concern and in the past three weeks here we have been working on our finishing skills,” admitted skipper Manpreet.
“We also need to avoid committing mistakes in the later stages of the match. We need to be cautious and avoid conceding goals in the last minutes. But we are prepared and confident of finishing at the top,” he added.
In other matches of the day, South Africa will take on USA in Pool B while Poland will face Uzbekistan in Pool B.
This is the second event of the FIH Series Finals with the first tournament hosted by Malaysia from April 26 to May 4 and the third and final event to be held at France from June 15 to 23.
A total of 14 teams will play at the FIH Olympic qualifiers, out of which seven teams will qualify for the Tokyo Games. (PTI)