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Commonwealth Games: Full-strength Indian team aims for podium finish

690   //    16 Mar 2018, 17:52 IST

Drag-flicker Harmanpreet Singh will need to fire at the Commonwealth Games

The Commonwealth Games Field Hockey tournament will be played from April 5 to April 14, 2018. Australia will host the event this year and the matches will be played at the Gold Coast Hockey Center.

Hosts Australia have won every single edition of the Commonwealth Games Hockey competition (1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, and 2014). Australia start as favorites yet again, after an unbeaten run in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. Captain Mark Knowles has announced his retirement after the Commonwealth Games and his team would love to give him a befitting farewell with a record sixth title.

India in tough Pool B

Australia is in Pool A alongside New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, and Scotland. The kookaburras look good enough to qualify for the semi-finals. Canada or New Zealand are most likely to book the second semi-final berth from Pool A.

India are in Pool B alongside England, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Wales. Interestingly, India are the second-highest ranked team in the tournament after Australia. Having fielded a full-strength squad for the tournament, India will look to justify their rankings and make it to the final against Australia.

Recent results have made a mockery of the rankings, however, and Team India cannot afford to be complacent against lower-ranked teams.

Erratic India lost to Malaysia and Canada in 2017

A full-strength Indian team thrashed Pakistan 7-1 in the Hockey World League Semi-Final in June last year.

The celebrations were short-lived, however, as India lost to Malaysia in the quarter-final. As if that wasn't enough, India went down to Canada 2-3 to finish sixth in London. Going purely by rankings, India should have beaten Malaysia and Canada with ease.

India lost to England 2-3 in the Hockey World League Semi-Final in December.

India will face Malaysia and England in pool matches in the Commonwealth Games and will look for inspiration from their young and inexperienced teammates who beat Malaysia 5-1 and held England 1-1 in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup.

India need to top Pool B to avoid Australia in semis

If India end up second in Pool B, they are more than likely to bump into Australia in the semi-final and that certainly would not be the most desired result. India will look to win matches with good margins if goal-difference becomes the deciding factor for semi-final qualification.

If India make it to the semi-final, a meeting with New Zealand or Canada is likely unless Australia fails to finish on top of Pool A.

India beat New Zealand twice in the Three-Nations Invitational earlier this year. The first win was a close encounter with India prevailing 3-2 and the second with a better 3-1 margin. Against, Canada, Sjoerd Marijne's side will look not to repeat the mistakes they made under Roelant Oltmans last year.

India vs Pakistan: Sjoerd Marijne vs Roelant Oltmans

India will open their campaign against Pakistan on April 7. Pakistan has a superior head-to-head record against India. A total of 171 matches have been played between the sides. Pakistan has won 82 times and India 59. Of late, however, India has beaten Pakistan consistently and with big margins.

India beat Pakistan four times in 2017. In the Hockey World League Semi-Final, India beat Pakistan 7-1 and then followed it up with a 6-1 victory a week later. In the Asia Cup hockey tournament, India won 3-1 and 4-0.

Pakistan, however, are now being coached by the same man who transformed Indian hockey in the recent past. Can Oltmans repeat the magic with Pakistan? Or will Sjoerd Marijne, his replacement in the Indian camp ensure that India continues to dominate? The battle of coaches will add new drama to what promises to be another epic encounter between two giants of hockey.

Penalty corners the key: Harmanpreet has to fire

Scoring field goals, in modern hockey, against big teams is an arduous task. Finding space to manoeuvre against experienced midfielders of Australia and England and getting past a packed defence to get a shot on goal is difficult. Hence, converting penalty corners is an absolute essential to win matches. Rupinder Pal Singh was India's best and is still is a force.

Harmanpreet Singh, however, is the player with the maximum potential who has to deliver if India are to aim for the final.

Former Indian hockey coach Roelant Oltmans had predicted last year that Harmanpreet Singh would soon become one of the best drag-flickers in the world. Harmanpreet scored 18 goals last year, making him the leading goalscorer for India in 2017. He was also the top scorer in the Asia Cup in Dhaka with seven goals and the joint-top scorer in the Hockey World League Semi-Final in London with six goals.

In the Three-Nations Invitational in Dusseldorf last year, Harmanpreet scored twice to help India beat a powerful Belgian side 3-2. This year too, in the Three-Nations Invitational in New Zealand, Harmanpreet played a key role for India. He scored against the hosts as won India 3-1 and also played a key role in the defence in the match against Belgium.

Can Ciriello help India beat Australia?

India won silver twice in the last two editions of the Commonwealth Games. The Aussies thrashed India 8-0 in Delhi in 2010. In Glasgow, in 2014, Australia beat India 4-0 in the final. Chris Ciriello had scored a penalty corner hat-trick in that match. Four years later, he finds himself in the Indian camp.

Chris Ciriello has Indian roots and his grandfather, Rudolph Pacheco played for India before moving to Australia. With an Australian as Analytical Coach, India will hope that Ciriello will be able to tilt the scales in India's favour as they have always struggled against the kookaburras.

Post the Azlan Shah experiment, Team India has been reinforced with the best available talent. SV Sunil is back to inject speed and skill into India's forward line. He will look to combine well with Akashdeep Singh and Gurjant Singh up front.

Sreejesh is back to guard India's goal with his acrobatics. Manpreet Singh is back as captain to aid in mid-field with Chinglensana who has always been consistent.

India have a full-strength squad and will look to go full-throttle to ensure themselves of a podium finish at Gold Coast.

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