December 18, 2016, was a historic night for Indian hockey as the Colts defeated Belgium in the Junior Men's World Cup final in Lucknow. Many from that squad went on to represent the senior team, and nine of them were part of India’s bronze medal-winning team at the Tokyo Olympics.
Almost five years after the feat, the Indian Colts will go up against the Belgians again, this time in the quarterfinals of the FIH Junior World Cup 2021 in Bhubaneswar on December 1 (7:30 p.m. IST).
Belgium topped Pool A with seven points, while India finished second in Pool B with six points after losing to France in their opening encounter. Belgium had a comfortable run in the group phase, barring a 1-1 draw against Malaysia.
India bounced back after their opening round defeat, scoring 13 and eight goals against Canada and Poland respectively.
India’s defense line was exposed by France in the first match, and they weren't exactly tested in subsequent matches. The quarterfinal against a formidable Belgian team will be a litmus test for the boys in blue.
The Indian Colts have improved both in attack and defense since their first match, and senior India coach Graham Reid expressed confidence that they will be able to beat top contenders Belgium at Kalinga Stadium. Reid said he was pretty happy with the way his boys played in the 8-2 win over Poland.
"I was pretty happy, to be honest, we started well, which was the plan, to put some scoreboard pressure on them which was good, and we did the same in the second half that also helps. Our press and our defense were a little bit better than in previous days. We had a lot of opportunities tonight and it is always hard to put away so many chances," he told the media after the Poland match.
Reid, along with veteran coach BJ Kariappa, are leading India’s think tank at the Junior World Cup and will have an uphill task on Wednesday when they face the Red Lions.
The team will be expecting goalkeepers Prashant Chauhan and Pawan to deliver, as they weren’t at their best against France and didn’t have to do much in the other two games.
What should be India’s strategy in the quarterfinals?
India’s strongest point has been the form of their drag-flickers – Sanjay, Araijit and Sharda. Everyone has scored whenever they have got the chance. Forwards Sudeep Chirmako and Uttam Singh will need to make sure they get enough opportunities inside the shooting circle to create penalty corners.
“Unlike the 2016 squad that had many players who had already played for the senior Indian men’s team, this group only has Vivek Sagar who has played at the highest level. We can say there is a bit of inexperience, but the boys will be high on confidence after winning convincingly in their last two matches” said former junior India goalkeeper Pankaj Rajak.
India’s defense has crumbled in tough situations. Defenders Abhishek Lakra and Shardanand need to step up in a must-win game.
Former India forward Roshan Minz said: “I feel the teams are pretty similar. It will all go down to that day to see who gives their best and holds their nerves.”
The Belgians have been particularly brilliant in midfield and have been able to keep possession for the maximum amount of time on the ground.
"I was talking to the group that we have three days and we will prepare and we will do well. We will look at all the videos we can and we will be analyzing our game and we will be analyzing Belgium. We came out last night as a team to see them play against Malaysia, so that was good. They (the players) had a look at them playing and we are very confident and hopefully we can go and get a victory," Reid said.