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2018 World Cup News
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Indian hopes are where quarterfinal is (12/10/2018)
--Shashank Gupta
Indian Coach Harendra Singh, after India finished a goalless draw against Malaysia in the recently concluded Asian Champions Trophy 2018, Muscat, said, “Strikers have to do their job.” After each India's match in the ongoing 2018 World Cup at Bhubaneswar, that line flashes my mind.

Consider the game against Belgium.

India drew with Belgium 2-2 but more than Harmanpreet and Simranjeet, the goalscorers, take a note of goal-creators. The first short-corner - Harmanpreet’s flick was blocked by Belgian goalkeeper - was set-up by superb team-work of Manpreet and Lalit Upadhyaya.

Similarly, the second one was an outcome of presence of mind of Nilkanta. He took his time in the circle, and in a well-composed manner, found the foot of Belgian defender. PC followed by a penalty-stroke and Harmanpreet leveled the score 1-1.

The other goal came about, thanks to a fantastic precision displayed by Kothajit Singh. He spotted an in- position Simranjeet at the goalmouth, passed it to him, and Simranjeet did the honors. In a similar situation, Dilpreet attempted a shot at the goal from an acute angle when Lalit sat at the goalmouth desperately waiting for a cross. The coach, Harendra Singh, appeared visibly annoyed with this act of Dilpreet.

On another occasion, when Dilpreet passed a fast one to Mandeep, who kneeling at the goalmouth, failed at finishing.

In this game, Varun, primarily a defender, was the man-of-the-match for his stunning game all over the turf. There were a few effective run-downs from the captain Manpreet, in the center-flank. Chinglensana, Kothajit, Sumit, Nilakanta over-performed their roles of midfielders.

Now look at the game against Canada.

It was a dragging 1-1 against the minnows Canada, until Chinglensana, in the beginning of 4 th quarter, scored a stunner followed by Lalit Upadhyay pumping in two superb goals, the first being on a fantastic solo and the second one from an exceptional cross from Sumit. In between those two, Rohidas scored one off a penalty-corner. Full-time score read 5-1. So, what’s wrong with this?

Where were the strikers? Akashdeep Singh, Dilpreet Singh and Mandeep Singh? Akashdeep is hardly seen with the ball and Dilpreet appears to be over-conscious of ‘not making a mistake’. Probably, he has been reprimanded for his solo-game and for asking for a Referral in an adrenaline-rush in the game against Belgium. India lost their Referral early-on in the game.

Mandeep remains sloppy with his finishing.

Simranjeet, who has been consistent in the first two games had a poor outing against Canada. Of course, Lalit is the only solid performer in the Forward-line.

So, with the main strikers failing for India, how has India managed to land-up in the Quarter-Finals? India has scored 12 goals, from 3 matches: 3 each from Lalit and Simranjeet, 2 from Harmanpreet and 1 each from Mandeep, Rohidas (PC), Akashdeep and Chinglensana.

The ones from Mandeep and Akashdeep were against a rather weak South Africa. Most of these goals were an outcome of the work done by the midfielders.

It’s a common sight that strikers fail under pressure. What’s the reason for it? This writer was present at recently concluded Asian Champions Trophy, Muscat and had similar observations. Akashdeep, Dilpreet and Mandeep tend to buckle under pressure. When they are denied, for long, the space they desire, to take that swing with their stick, their presence of mind and accuracy, goes haywire.

Does the Coach and his support-staff have any solution to arrest this problem?

Apparently not! At least, there hasn’t been an occasion to believe otherwise. On the contrary, on a couple of occasions, in Muscat, the Coach was visibly frustrated with the acts of strikers, both on and off field, for not scoring and indulging for a few seconds in giving out autographs, respectively. Would this help the players in feeling relieved from pressure? Difficult to say a ‘Yes’.

Essentially, the job of strikers is being performed by Midfielders and Drag-flickers.

So, can Indian midfielders and defenders sustain filling-in for their forwards?

Take for example, the final two minutes in India v Belgium game. Belgium had pulled-back one goal to make it 2-2 and their regular goalkeeper had been taken off. India had the ball inside the Belgian quarter. Wonderful chance to score, right? However, an otherwise wonderfully composed Surender, gave a lofted pass towards the Belgian cage and lost the ball possession.

Another interesting fact pertains to Sreejesh. In the game against Belgium, both the goals Belgians scored went between his legs. The usually acrobatic Sreejesh appears to be slightly off-form.

Strangely, the other goalkeeper Krishna Pathak hasn’t been fielded at all. With Hardik Singh and Amit Rohidas not seen on turf as often as others are, and Akashdeep, Mandeep, Dilpreet not striking well, the rest-lot is overloaded with work. A team of 18 appears to have shrunk to about 12.

Now, can India pull-off the quarter-final with such a depleted bench-strength?

Post last pool-match, with India reaching the Quarter-finals, the Indian Coach said, “Our World Cup campaign starts from now.” A day later, a fan, who travels the globe to watch Indian Hockey matches sounded hopeless, “Quarter- finals is where their journey is likely to end.”

Put together this means, a fan feels that India’s World Cup streak may get over the moment it starts (from what the coach said), i.e. the next game in Quarter-Finals.

Mind you, fans in the stadium, have the most realistic assessment of their respective teams.

Can India mend their problems and relieve the mental pressure from the minds of their players? Hopefully, they have strong mechanisms to handle that debilitating problem.

India has the best and the biggest opportunity of the last decade to spin-magic in Bhubaneswar, right in front of 15000-odd fans.

What if, when the Coach mentioned, “Our World Cup campaign starts from now,” he meant to hint that the team is mentally-strong to take on Netherlands in QFs and other big-horns of World Hockey?

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