Why the Asian Champions Trophy will be vital for India's World Cup preparations
The Indians do not have a World Cup record that is particularly flattering, having won a bronze in the opening edition in 1971, followed by a silver in 1973, and recording their best-ever (and only) gold medal finish in 1975.
It has been 43 years since an Indian team last stood on a World Cup podium. Can Harendra Singh's chargers defy the odds and script history at Bhubaneswar?
Whether or not the home advantage works in India's favour at the World Cup remains to be seen but for all those who are hopeful of a podium finish, there is a catch. The earliest matches may well be the toughest, and the early knockouts may prove to be the most daunting of all.
In the pool matches and initial knockouts, Sreejesh and co. will be up against a bunch of sides that have recently proven to be a thorn in India's flesh. If the Indians can negotiate the choppy waters and come through unscathed, the latter stages of the tournament may prove to be far less hazardous.
The Indians have shown that they do have what it takes to compete with the best in the business at the Champions Trophy - but was the performance at Breda an inspired run, and can Sreejesh and co. replicate the feat after a confidence-sapping defeat at the Asian Games?
Asian Champions Trophy - one last chance to get the ball rolling
After suffering a devastating loss to Malaysia in the semifinals at Jakarta, Harendra Singh's boys will be keen to prove to themselves and to the world that they are still the best team in the continent when they take on Asia's elite at Muscat just over a month from now.
Asian Games gold-medalists Japan will be joined by South Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, hosts Oman, and defending champions India in the biennial tournament to be played in a round-robin format.
A couple of days after a high-voltage encounter against their age-old rivals Pakistan, the Indians will face Stephen van Huizen's Malaysian tigers, on October 22, in a match that, for once, promises to overshadow the subcontinental clash.
Yet, the Indian camp is well aware that a lot more than pride will be at stake when they take the field against Malaysia and Pakistan in the Asian Champions Trophy, as there is a distinct possibility that they may indeed run into one of the two sides in an early knockout clash at Bhubaneswar.
Why topping Pool C can prove tricky for India at the World Cup
The format of the World Cup is such that only the pool topper will be eligible to gain direct entry into the quarterfinal stage while the teams finishing second and third will have to earn the right to make it to the quarters via the playoffs or crossovers.
The hosts will play their opener against the South Africans ranked fifteenth, before meeting the formidable Belgians ranked third, and will be hoping to change the script against the eleventh-ranked Canadians against whom they have a less-than-impressive recent record.
Anthony Farry's side broke Indian hearts when the Golden Girls went down to Japan in the final at Jakarta just over a couple weeks back, but the Indian men are just as aware of the Aussie coach's prowess.
Farry was the coach of the Canadian men's side which held India to a 2-2 draw in a crucial encounter at the Rio Olympics a couple of years back. The North American side kept the momentum going even as Farry moved on and was replaced by Paul Bundy, as they shocked the Indians 3-2 in the Hockey World League Semifinal at London last year.
As a result of the win against Oltmans' side at London, the Canadians earned a ticket to Bhubaneswar and now find themselves drawn in the same pool as their benefactors alongside the Belgians who have proven to be India's nemesis on the big stage on numerous occasions.
The Indians lost to Belgium by a 2-3 margin in the last edition of the World Cup in 2014, and also in the vital Olympic quarterfinals at Rio a couple of years back when they squandered an early lead to go down 1-3.
More recently, the Red Lions got the better of India in the finals of both legs of the Four-Nations Invitational at New Zealand in January this year but lost to Sjoerd Marijne's side in a pool encounter of the same tournament.
Goalkeeper Sreejesh was in superlative form as he helped his side hold Belgium to a hard-fought 1-1 draw in the Champions Trophy en route to a historic silver at Breda in June.
Sreejesh was not at Bhubaneswar last December when the Indians beat Belgium via a shootout to enter the semifinal of the Hockey World Final thanks to Akash Chikte's heroics, but will be hoping his boys can repeat the magic this December at the same venue.
Given India's past record against Belgium and Canada, topping Pool C will be no mean task, and they may well have to attempt the playoff route to the get to the quarterfinals - either way, the task is daunting.
India's early knockouts may involve Malaysia - they cannot afford another slip-up
In the crossovers, the team finishing second in Pool C will clash with the side that finishes third in Pool D and vice versa. If Sreejesh's boys were to top their pool and gain direct entry into the quarterfinals, they will face the winners of a playoff involving teams from Pool C and Pool D.
Making India's task a trifle more difficult will be the fact that a crossover would involve a clash with one of four teams who all seem to be just as menacing.
India played their hearts out against the hosts the Netherlands in the Champions Trophy earning a 1-1 draw but need to remember that drag-flicker Mink van der Weerden was not at Breda but will, in all probability, be back in action for the World Cup.
A hopelessly depleted German side fought valiantly before going down 1-2 to India in the bronze-medal match of the Hockey World League Final but had beaten the Indians by a 2-0 margin in the group stages of the same tournament.
The European giants are formidable enough but India's loss to Stephen van Huizen's side at Jakarta only makes matters worse for Harendra Singh's boys.
Much like the Canadians, the Malaysians also have the hosts to thank for making it to Bhubaneswar, as their win over India in the Hockey World League Semifinal at London last year brought their World Cup hopes to life.
The Asian Champions Trophy, therefore, assumes enormous significance as the Indians have an even chance of running into either Malaysia or Pakistan in the crossovers at Bhubaneswar.
True, Pakistan fought hard and true and ran the Indians close at Jakarta before going down by a narrow 1-2 margin but for once Sreejesh and co. will be a lot more wary of the Asian Games silver-medalists and need to well and truly sort the Malaysians out.
Of course, India may well meet the Netherlands in the crossovers or the quarterfinals - in which case, they will feel reasonably confident after their exploits at Breda. The Indians have not played the Germans this year and it will be interesting to see which team outwits the other if they do clash in the knockouts.
The hosts may also face a team from their own pool in the quarterfinals again (just as the Indian girls faced Ireland in the Women's World Cup quarterfinals at London after having played them in the pool match earlier).
Most importantly, the Indian camp has to get over the Asian Games debacle to commence their World Cup campaign with confidence, and there is simply no better way to do so than to get back to their winning ways on the pitch. The Asian Champions Trophy ends exactly one month before the World Cup commences and the timing could not have been more appropriate.
Harmanpreet and Rupinder Singh will have one last chance to get their PCs right as they will be practising on the newly-laid Bhubaneswar pitch. Gurjant Singh will need to combine well up front with his fellow strikers after making it back to the camp after the Commonwealth Games, as will Sumit Kumar who is returning post-injury.