Azlan Shah Cup: Can India overcome the Argentine challenge?
Rapid rise of the Los Leones
Two teams have made the headlines in the world of hockey for their meteoric rise veering ahead of the traditional powerhouses and carving a niche for themselves in a short span of time. The same two teams have also proved to be a major obstacle for India in the last decade or so. Both teams, incidentally have nicknames associated with the king of the jungle.
The Belgian Red Lions from Europe have risen to be the current Olympic silver medalists.
Los Leones (The Lions) from South America have also had a dramatic ascendancy since the 2014 World Cup. The Rio Olympic gold medalists will meet India in the Azlan Shah Cup opener on Saturday. Coached by Carlos Jose Retegui, Argentina have emerged as a new powerhouse in world hockey.
The Indian team is well-aware of this fact, having played Argentina recently and will be wary, in particular, of two players, both of whom are world class and equally dangerous.
Gonzalo Peillat and Lucas Vila: Argentina's goal machines
Cyclone Okchi was advancing towards Odisha in December last year when Bhubaneswar hosted the Hockey World League Final. India and Argentina were to meet in the semi-final at the Kalinga Stadium.
On December 8, gusty winds and a wet pitch greeted the teams in front of a packed stadium laden with umbrellas. As the rain pelted down, both teams found passing and advancing difficult given the conditions but Argentina seemed more at ease.
A lone goal from Argentina was enough to seal India's fate. The goal came in the 17th minute of the match, a lofted hit to the right of the post off a penalty corner. The speed of the shot was such that India's goalkeeper and the defenders were rooted to the spot and could only watch as the ball sailed past into the back of the net.
The goalscorer was Gonzalo Peillat, Argentina's penalty-corner specialist and one of the best drag-flickers in the world currently.
In 2014, Gonzalo Peillat was named by the International Hockey Federation as the FIH Young Player of the Year. In the same year, at the World Cup, Gonzalo Peillat scored 10 goals, all off penalty corners, to make him the highest scorer of the tournament. A statistic that is even more staggering is that he missed only four drag flicks out of a total of 14.
Peillat started playing hockey at the age of four and played his club hockey for Mitre Club in Buenos Aires and recently for Kalinga Lancers in India.
Young Suraj Karkera and Krishan Pathak in goal will need to be at their best to stop Peillat's devastating drag flicks if India are to make a match out of it on Saturday.
Another Argentine player who the Indian defenders will need to look out for is Lucas Vila. A dangerous striker with spectacular attacking prowess, Vila played a key role for Argentina during their Olympic campaign.
Argentina will no doubt start favourites against their lower ranked opponents who have fielded a young inexperienced side. One match, however, should inspire and give Sardar Singh's boys hope.
Beating the eventual gold medalists in Rio
India will take heart from their win in Rio against Argentina. In the group B match, India had the upper hand and looked superior to the eventual champions in the first three-quarters of the match. Argentina came back hard in the final quarter but India won 2-1 with a superb all-around performance.
While a lot of India's heroes from that encounter (notably PR Sreejesh) are not part of the squad for the Azlan Shah tournament, captain Sardar Singh played in Rio and will be vital to India's chances.
Who will score the penalty-corners for India?
Rupinder Pal Singh and Harmanpreet Singh, India's most successful drag-flickers in recent times are not in the squad in Malaysia. Coach Sjoerd Marijne had mentioned that India's young defenders were putting in extra training for drag-flicks. Will they be good enough to convert consistently? Varun Kumar is an option who has done the job in the past.
Coach Sjoerd Marijne must surely have a plan up his sleeve with regard to the drag-flickers to be used. On Saturday, one hopes, Indian hockey fans will be more enlightened as to what those plans are.
The defence looks solid with Varun Kumar, Dipsan Tirkey, and Surendra Kumar. Gurjant Singh, Ramandeep Singh, and Talwinder Singh look good enough for India up-front and the experience of Sardar Singh will be vital in midfield.
It is quite impossible to predict how the debutantes Sumit Kumar (Junior), Mandeep Mor, and Shilanand Lakra will shape up at this level.
Argentina has beaten hosts Malaysia 3-2 in a friendly warm-up match a couple of days back. Lucas Vila scored once and Gonzalo Peillat scored twice against the hosts showing that both key players are in prime form.
If India start well against Argentina, it will be a huge shot in the arm not only for their chances in this tournament but for Sjoerd Marijne's plans for the future.
So, don't miss the action on March 3 as a young Indian side take the field in their quest to create history.