The Indian campaign that started with getting the monkey off the back against New Zealand, followed by the game of inches against England and the demand of goals against Wales has reached the stage from where comebacks in the tournament are not possible. It’s the knockout rounds and the Tokyo Olympics bronze medallists find themselves pitted against New Zealand in the crossovers. The winner goes through to the quarterfinals and the loser is left to fight in the placement matches.
The campaign is not rocked so to say, but the results haven’t done justice to India’s expectations so far. A 2-0 victory against Spain, a 0-0 draw versus England and a 4-2 win over debutants Wales is not enough substance to feel good about. On top of that, failure to finish No. 1 in the pool wasn’t the way coach Graham Reid would have wanted things to pan out in Rourkela and Bhubaneswar.
Hockey WC: India face New Zealand in do-or-die crossover tie
But the format allows 8 of the 12 teams a second chance. The eight teams that finished either second or third in the four pools are part of the crossover matches.
India finished second in Pool D and face the No. 3 team from Pool C, New Zealand, on Sunday. In the other three crossover matches, Malaysia face Spain in the first match on Sunday, while Germany take on France on Monday, followed by South Korea up against Argentina on the same day.
The crossover teams can further take heart from the fact that the 2018 Belgium vs Netherlands World Cup final was between two teams that came into the quarterfinals through the crossovers.
If you put India and New Zealand on a weighing scale, the Black Sticks don’t look a match for the Indian team.
The only win for the Kiwis in this World Cup has come against Chile. They lost to the Netherlands 0-4 and to Malaysia 2-3. Going a little further back to October last year, the New Zealanders lost both their Pro League matches against India in Bhubaneswar itself with the scorlines of 7-4 and 4-3, which, however, signals that it will be foolhardy to consider them pushovers.
India have its own set of worries with the exit of Hardik Singh due to a hamstring injury and a scare to Mandeep Singh during training on Saturday evening when he hurt his knee. There is no definitive update on Mandeep’s injury status, but India will hope that he remains available in the forward line.
To replace Hardik, India have brought in midfielder Rajkumar Pal.
“Hardik is a good player and was in very good form. But Rajkumar, who has replaced him, is also in good form and one of the future stars,” said Reid, talking to reporters after the team’s training session on Saturday. “Disappointing for Hardik, exciting for Raj. Those who watched him against New Zealand earlier (in the Pro League) would have seen some of the stuff he can do. So we are confident. Difficult for Hardik, but we have enough talent to compensate.”
Despite a poor run, New Zealand, who don’t mind to be called the ‘underdogs’ of world hockey, haven’t shied away from making some surprise innovations, like taking off their goalkeeper in the opening quarter of the match against 2018 runners-up Netherlands. But it backfired and reflected poorly in a 4-0 defeat. NZ coach Greg Nicol said that if need be, the crowd may see some ‘out of the box’ innovations against India as well.
“We certainly will (innovate) if we have to,” Nicols said. “If we think we need to influence the game, whether it’s in the fourth quarter or the first or the second quarter, we know we have got some things that we can do.”
After the Wales game, when India needed eight clear goals to leave England behind on goal difference and top the pool, Reid had said that the team lacked in terms of pressure on the game. The training session on Saturday was mostly about that, besides fixing the penalty-corner woes, as Nilam Sanjeep Xess got more drag-flick practice, along with skipper Harmanpreet Singh, than witnessed in training sessions previously during this World Cup.
Sunday will tell how much of that hard work turns into fruition. And there is no second chance from here.
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