After eight long years, India is finally back in the Olympics for hockey. Michael Nobbs’ 10th ranked team will take on the mighty Netherlands who’re ranked behind only World Champion Australia and reigning Olympics Champion Germany. India hasn’t played this opposition since Nobbs took over India’s reigns over a year ago, though both the coach and captain Bharat Chetri have played down this factor ahead of the clash. India is coming into the Olympics on the back of a bittersweet year where they won the Olympics Qualifiers, won the bronze at Sultan Azlan Shah Cup but finished last in Great Britain’s Olympics Test Event (involving Australia and Germany too) and the tri-nation tournament involving Spain and Great Britain. Though they defeated France in both practice matches easily, they squandered a 5-1 lead against a lowly ranked South Africa to narrowly manage a 6-5 win, but lost the next match to them 3-4, underlining the lack in consistency.
Although it’s a tough ask, much would depend on the opening match of India’s campaign if they intend to make a mark this time around. India has adjusted well to the new blue turf and though the unevenness of the pitch behaviour in the preparatory matches has drawn the coach’s ire, India is prepared for the hard and bouncy turf. What will be on the back of India’s mind will be their performance against big European nations. India has defeated Great Britain once this year at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, but fell short against the same opponents thrice in two different tournaments. Losses against Australia, Germany and Spain have also not helped India’s confidence against the big nations, although a close finish against Germany at the Olympics Test Event in London and a draw against Spain in a friendly tie would have given India something to work at.
Another concern for the 8 time Olympics Champion will be their brittle defence. India has conceded goals this year at almost 2 goals per matches – underlining the case of defensive lapses. While Sandeep Singh remains India’s premier weapon with his deadly drag-flicks, his defensive capability hasn’t been up to the mark. Also, experienced Ignace Tirkey and Sandeep’s fellow drag-flicker VR Raghunath haven’t been rock solid in front of the goal. Michael Nobbs has time and again, underlined the importance of the attacking play for Team India, but though this technique has given India superiority against the low-ranked teams, stronger oppositions have found it easier to find the back of the net and neutralise the Indian attack. Against Netherlands, it’ll be clearly a test against fire for the Indian team, for Netherlands on their day, can deflate the opposition with their free-flowing play.
Players to look out for:
Sardar Singh: He’s been India’s best player over a couple of years now. Coming into the tournament, he’s been adjudged the Player of the Tournament thrice this year and is in peak form. He holds the strings in the midfield and supplies the forward line with immaculate passes, while also falling back to help the team’s defensive cause when the situation demands. Though he had an injury scare ahead of the crucial fixture, he’s expected to be fit in time for the opening match.
Bharat Chetri: The captain of the Indian team, he’s the man who’ll be the last line of defence for India, manning the goal post. He has challenge from the talented PR Sreejesh from within the ranks, but has been the coach’s first choice goalkeeper. Behind a shaky defensive line, his saves could change the course of the match if Indian forwards don’t miss their chances.
Sandeep Singh: Without doubt, the most prolific goal-scorer in the current Indian squad. His drag-flicks are almost unstoppable. He’s the main reason behind India’s presence at the Olympics this year – scoring 16 goals in Olympics Qualifiers. Nobbs has reiterated the importance of penalty corners on many occasions, and India’s ace-drag flicker could well be the biggest card India play at their arrival on the Olympics scene after 8 years.
Teun De Nooijer: He’s one of the most outstanding players in contemporary hockey – having over 200 international goals to his name. He was there when Netherlands won the 1996 and 2000 Olympic Gold medal. Although he was initially dropped by the Dutch coach, public criticism forced the coach to include him in the Olympics squad. Nobbs will be aware of the threat a player like De Nooijer can present to his not-so-great defence.
Roderick Weusthof: He’s the man in form for the Dutch and the danger man to look out for India. He continued his goal-scoring spree this year with a goal in the 5-1 drubbing of Pakistan in the warm-up match recently. He was also the highest scorer in Dutch Hoofdklasse (the Dutch hockey league).
Though inexperience will be the major factor against India in this opening game against a strong team, it’ll be a golden window of opportunity for the Olympics newbies in the team (only Sandeep and Ignace have prior Olympics experience) to make a mark at the highest level. More than anything, this match will give a proper indication of India’s ‘threat’ to other teams in this Olympics and has the potential to be a huge morale booster for the countless back home who’re dreamy eyed about India’s chances at the London Olympics 2012.
Date: 30th July 2012
Venue: Riverbank Arena, London
Time: 2030 hrs (IST)