After a magnificent performance against the Netherlands, the Indian men’s hockey team will resume its FIH Pro League 2020 campaign against the World Champions Belgium. For the visitors, playing at the iconic Kalinga Stadium will bring back great memories as it was here that they lifted the World Cup in 2018 after defeating the Netherlands in a thrilling penalty shoot-out.
The Manpreet Singh-led Indian side spent most of the last year winning big in matches against relatively weaker sides. The only exception was the tour of Australia where they played two Test matches which they lost. 2019 ended on a positive note with their victory over Russia in the Olympic qualifiers.
Major test for India
The participation in the second season of Pro League has given the Indian side a much-needed opportunity to test themselves against other top sides of the world. So far, the results have been better than expected. Getting five out of the available six points from two matches against the Netherlands was more than what most fans would have expected.
But the difficulty level is going to rise much higher when the hosts take on the formidable and extremely consistent Belgian team. While the Netherlands did look off the boil in the two matches which they played against India, Belgian side under Shane McLeod is going to come all guns blazing.
Belgium's tactical challenge
What would be most interesting to watch is how the Indian forward line, which has been encouraged to play positively and in a high-press most of the time, would square up against the very solid defence of the visitors.
Former FIH Male Player of the Year Arthur van Doren will provide the leadership to Belgium’s backline. Though he is an all-rounder who could also play high up the pitch when the situation demands, it has been the solid defending of Van Doren which has made him an invaluable player for his team.
India's playing style
In a way, this would be the most important test for the style of aggressive, high-press style of hockey that coach Graham Reid has brought into the team. He has stated in the past that, regardless of who you are playing, when you put pressure on a side by pressing hard, it will create chances and put pressure on the other side. He too is looking forward to these two matches.
“We are ready to go. We have been training for the last two weeks. So, it's been really good preparation for the matches against Belgium. What's important is for us is that we need to perform at our best. We will be going for the win. We are not going to focus much on our opponents but will focus on what we need to do. The players are very clear about what is required of them. We can't change the way our opponents play, but we can change the way we play,” Reid told the press.
All eyes on Olympics
No team is more likely to challenge that method of playing than this Belgian team. With its robust defence and structure, it will challenge the Indian side at every moment of the game. Indian captain Manpreet Singh is aware of this challenge and believes such opportunities of playing against top teams will help the team to prepare well for Olympics.
“All the teams which are playing in the FIH Hockey Pro League will play in the Olympics as well. So, we have a good opportunity to find out which areas we should work on during this tournament and get better as a team before the Olympics. The youngsters also have a good chance to showcase their skills in this competition,” the skipper said at the pre-match press conference.
But it won’t just be the forward line of the Indian team that will be under pressure. The defence too would have its hands full with strikers like Cedric Charlier and Tom Boon. What is worse for the Indian team is that this is a team that is looking to improve and, having suffered a defeat at the hands of New Zealand, would be motivated even more for success.
“We want to win the FIH Hockey Pro League trophy and we have our eyes on the Olympic Games as well. We are the World No.1 side and every game counts. On the other hand, we want to develop as a team and try new tactics. We want to learn from other countries. But while doing it, we also want to win the matches. The two games this weekend are going to be crucial,” the captain of the team Thomas Briels told the media in his pre-match press conference.
Belgium have been, by far, the most consistent side in world hockey for the last few years. They won silver at Rio in 2016, became World Champions in 2018, European Champions in 2019, and contested the inaugural Pro League Final in 2019. A tough test awaits Reid and his boys at Bhubaneswar.