2019 Women's FIH Olympic Qualifiers, India vs USA 1st leg: Preview, prediction, telecast, date, start time and where to watch online
A historic Asian Games silver after a gap of 20 years which came hot on the heels of a gritty World Cup quarterfinal finish heralded the beginning of a new era for the Indian eves who were tantalizingly close to booking a direct ticket to Tokyo - but went down by a lone goal to a determined Japanese side at Jakarta 2018.
Rani Rampal and co. had beaten the Japanese earlier last year - and did so recently as well, but failed to establish their continental superiority when it mattered the most and were left with no choice but to go through the qualifying process to make it to the Olympic Games.
The win over hosts Japan at the FIH Series Finals in Hiroshima ensured that the Indian girls made it to the final round of the qualifiers where they have been drawn to play the Americans in Bhubaneswar.
Although the Indian girls are ranked higher than their opponents - which gave them the right to host the two-legged playoff - overcoming the USA will be an enormous challenge especially since the Americans played the inaugural Pro League, earlier this year, which pitted them against the best teams in the world.
In stark contrast, Rani Rampal and co. have done remarkably well while touring Spain, Malaysia, and Great Britain but have not been involved in competitive tournaments apart from the FIH Series Finals which was the stepping stone to the qualifiers.
The Kalinga Stadium will witness the Golden Girls of Indian hockey in action for the first time against an American side who played out a 1-1 draw against India at the London World Cup last year.
Back then, the USA was ranked higher than Sjoerd Marijne's team but the resurgent Indians now occupy the 9th place in the FIH World Rankings as compared to their rivals who have slipped to the 13th position after a string of disappointing performances over the last year and a half.
The USA managed to win just one out of their 16 Pro League matches earlier this year but coach Sjoerd Marijne is unwilling to read too much into how the opposition has performed against other teams - and opines that the Americans performed a lot better than what the points table displays.
India's Asian rivals have had mixed results in the qualifiers last week - the Chinese made it through to Tokyo 2020 by beating the Belgians in a pulsating shootout while the Koreans failed to get past Spain.
The Indians lost to the USA by a 0-3 margin at Rio 2016 and were beaten 1-4 at the HWL Semifinal a year later, but it would be fair to say that the advent of Sjoerd Marijne has catapulted the team to a whole new level over the last couple of years - and with the backing of the Odisha crowd, the hosts will consider themselves favourites.
Former coach Harendra Singh told Sportskeeda that the girls would qualify thanks to some extraordinary hard work - if recent results are anything to go by, Marijne's chargers deserve to be at the Olympics without a shadow of a doubt and have the ability to take on the best in the business if, indeed, they make it.
Here is how you can catch all the action:
Event: Olympic Qualifiers, 2019
Venue: Bhubaneswar, India
Date: 1 November 2019
Time: 6:00 pm Indian Standard Time (IST)
Telecast: Star Sports 1, Star Sports 1 HD
Live Streaming: Hotstar
Live Updates: Sportskeeda
The Indian girls will be playing at home for the first time since early 2017 and the youngsters in the team will need to handle the pressure of expectations and the noise emanating from the galleries of the Kalinga Stadium.
Key drag-flicker Gurjit Kaur will need to fire on target to ensure that her side takes a healthy lead in the first leg to avoid having their backs to the wall in the second.
Tackling the physicality of the USA will be a challenge but the superior skill of the hosts should help them prevail.