Olympics 2020 Predictions: Can the Indian men create history in Tokyo?

India look enough to make the Olympic quarterfinal one more time
India look enough to make the Olympic quarterfinal one more time

The die has been cast - and, a dozen of the best hockey-playing nations of the world will cross swords in an effort to stand atop the most prestigious hockey podium of all at the Olympic Games.

There have been a few surprises - and not all the 12 top-ranked teams in the world have made it to Tokyo 2020.

Malaysia, ranked eleventh as per the FIH world rankings, failed to make the grade after losing their Olympic qualifiers to Great Britain while France who earned the twelfth place thanks to a superlative show at Odisha 2018 lost narrowly to Spain, but will be part of Paris 2024 by virtue of being the host nation - and deservingly so.

Japan, ranked fifteenth, would have qualified in any case - but by winning the Asian Games, Siegfried Aikman's Samurais proved to themselves and the world that they will be no pushovers at Tokyo.

The field hockey competition of the Olympic Games seem incomplete without three-time gold-medalists Pakistan, but the Men in Green flattered only to deceive by fighting valiantly against the Dutch in the first leg of the qualifiers before being blown away in the second.

Arch-rivals and eight-time Olympic champions India outplayed the Russians and find themselves drawn in Pool A alongside 2004 gold-medalists Australia, defending champions Argentina, three-times runners-up Spain, and Montreal 1976 winners New Zealand.

Indian coach Graham Reid told Sportskeeda in an earlier interview that he believed both pools of the Olympic Games were equally balanced which was reflective of the state of world hockey at the moment - and also that the new format which involves a quarterfinal brings into focus the strengths and weaknesses of the opposite pool as well.

Rio silver-medalists Belgium is the top-ranked team in Pool B which also comprises of two-time champions, the Netherlands, four-time winners Germany, and three-time gold-medalists Great Britain along with Canada and South Africa.

So, keeping in mind the format and the pools, what are India's chances of making it to the knockouts and beyond in Tokyo 2020?

The Indians have not won gold since Moscow 1980 - their best effort since was the quarterfinal finish at Rio 2016.

Let's gaze at the crystal ball and attempt to predict where the Indians might finish based on the results in the recent past.

India's Olympic 2020 Journey:

July 25: India vs New Zealand

The Black Sticks failed to make an impact in the first edition of the Pro League earlier this year but Manpreet Singh and co. are only too aware of the damage that New Zealand can cause - especially in the big games.

After getting past the hosts, New Zealand, in the Four-Nations tournament in early 2018, the Indians faced Darren Smith's in-form side in the semifinals of the Commonwealth Games in April the same year. Hugo Inglis, Stephen Jenness, and Marcus Child were on fire and shocked the 2014 CWG silver-medalists who eventually returned home without a medal.

Veteran Indian striker SV Sunil told Sportskeeda after the tournament that the Indians had been a wee-bit complacent against New Zealand in light of the victories at the Four-Nations and the CWG defeat prompted some serious soul searching.

The New Zealanders will be tricky opponents to face in an Olympic opener but Reid's chargers should be able to pick up full points - unless the Black Sticks manage a strong comeback in Pro League 2020, the Indians will begin as favourites.

July 26: India vs Australia

Two back-to-back games against NZ and Australia will test the Indians
Two back-to-back games against NZ and Australia will test the Indians

As compared to India, the Aussies have an opener that is relatively easier to handle - the kookaburras will be up against Japan before taking on a team that has been ever-so-steadily catching up on them.

The thumping big-margin wins over India are no longer as common as they were in the past - and not considering the 2019 trip Down Under - which was coach Graham Reid's maiden tour - the Indians have been steadily gaining ground against a side which has dominated world hockey since the 1980s.

The final of the 2016 Champions Trophy set a trend - a goalless draw was followed by an Aussie win in a controversial shootout.

Although the Aussies beat India in the Azlan Shah Cup of 2017 and 2018 - the win in the latter edition against a fledgeling side - the finals of the 2018 Champions Trophy proved beyond doubt that the Indians were more than capable of upsetting their more fancied rivals.

A narrow shootout defeat notwithstanding, the Indians won hearts at Breda, and Odisha 2018 bore testament to the fact that world hockey was opening up like never before.

The Australians could only manage a bronze at the World Cup but came back strongly to win the Pro League 2019.

While the Aussies will be tough to handle just a day after the New Zealand match, Indian fans will be hoping that their team recreates some of the Breda Champions Trophy magic - even a draw should be a welcome result for the Indians.

July 28 - India vs Spain

The magic of Xavi Lleonart, Enrique Gonzalez, and Pau Quemada mesmerised the Kalinga Stadium during the World Cup, and although the Spanish failed to make a splash at the 2019 Pro League (apart from perfecting the art of shoot-outs), the Red Sticks are quite capable of beating the best on their day.

How the Indians shape up against Spain in the forthcoming Pro League will be vital - and the fact that the clash is scheduled in June - a month before the Olympic fixture - makes the Valencia encounter all the more significant.

Spain's epic all-Hispanic clash against Argentina at the World Cup which ended in a 4-3 win for the South Americans and their win over the Dutch at the HWL Finals at Bhubaneswar will remind the Indians to fire on all cylinders. If they do, Manpreet and co. will be hoping to end up as winners in their third pool match.

July 30 - India vs Argentina

A win against Argentina may well make all the difference for the Indian campaign
A win against Argentina may well make all the difference for the Indian campaign

The encounter against the defending champions will hardly be a piece of cake - but what will give the Indians hope is the fact the Los Leones have not been at their best lately.

Master drag-flicker Gonzalo Peillat - the architect of Argentina's Rio Olympic triumph was missing in action at the Pro League - but the Indians beat an Argentinian side with Peillat in the ranks at Breda 2018.

The South Americans also seem to be missing coach Carlos Retegui who was at the helm in Rio - where the Indians had incidentally beaten the eventual champions by a 2-1 margin in the pool stage.

A win against Argentina will help the Indians finish higher up in the pool which will ensure, possibly, a weaker quarterfinal opponent - if indeed, the Indians manage to remain unbeaten in the first three games.

Argentina did not make it to the top-four in the 2019 Pro League, and how they perform in the upcoming edition may well determine how their Pool A opponents size them up ahead of Tokyo 2020.

July 31 - India vs Japan

With goal difference and goals for being the criteria for classification following points and matches won, the Indians can scarcely afford to rest easy in a clash that, on paper, seems relatively less hazardous than the preceding ones.

The Indians have beaten Japan at the 2018 Asian Games, 2018 Asian Champions Trophy and the Azlan Shah Cup, FIH Series Finals, and Olympic Test event of 2019.

How the teams approach the final pool games will, of course, be dependent on how the points table looks at that particular stage - but, a big win ahead of a possible knockout game will do the Indians a world of good.

Knockouts and beyond?

Can Canada or South Africa stop one of the Big Four from making the quarterfinals from Pool B?

A big question indeed considering the prowess of Belgium, Netherlands, Great Britain, and Germany - all of whom are menacing enough to halt the Indians in their tracks in a possible quarterfinal meeting.

The Germans have been off-colour in recent times, but a strong Pro League comeback cannot be ruled out for the Europeans who have ruled the hockey world alongside Australia and the Netherlands for a great many years.

Four of the top teams from each pool will make it to the knockouts.

While a quarterfinal finish is a distinct possibility for India, at Tokyo, whether or not they can create history by going further will depend on which teams strike form in the upcoming Pro League and also on how the Indians make their mark in the gruelling tournament.

A strong Pro League performance is, therefore, an absolute prerequisite for any team that aims to make a mark in the Olympics.

When Reid's boys take the field against the Dutch at the sprawling Kalinga Stadium, in January, they will be carrying the hopes and aspirations of millions of Indian fans, from both far and near.

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Edited by Raunak J
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