Having finished second in their group, India take on New Zealand in a must-win Crossover stage match in the FIH Odisha Hockey Men’s World Cup here on Sunday with a place in the quarterfinals on the line.
India had started their campaign with a 2-0 win against Spain, held fifth-ranked England to a draw and managed to prevail 4-2 over minnows Wales to finish unbeaten in Pool D, tied on seven points with England but with an inferior goal difference.
New Zealand, on the other hand, finished third in Pool C after suffering a shock 2-3 defeat against Malaysia. The Black Sticks had also lost 0-4 to the Netherlands, managing to score only five goals and conceding eight — their lone win coming against Chile.
India too have struggled to score goals and have a tally of six goals from three matches. They have also conceded two goals against Wales in two minutes of sustained pressure that saw the Indian defence crumble.
Though the Indian team finished undefeated in Pool D, their performance has not been as good as they would have liked.
For years, the defense has been India’s Achilles heel but they have managed to make up for that with aggressive, attacking hockey. In this World Cup, the Indians seemed to have forgotten their scoring touch in Bengaluru, where they had their first camp for the World Cup.
The Indians have entered the shooting circle on 76 occasions, but have managed to have only 37 shots at the goal and of which managed to score only six goals. They have earned 16 penalty corners but scored only three goals.
Defensively, the Indians have done well, pulling off 56 blocks in three matches, and only 26 tackles which put them in the lower part of the list. They managed to effect 40 interceptions and had made 829 passes in the three matches.
They have to iron out a few of these issues against New Zealand as they meet in the Crossover encounter.
But they will have to do that without key midfielder Hardik Singh, who had to withdraw from the tournament because of a hamstring injury he suffered towards the end of the match against England.
Hardik was the fulcrum of the midfield and the best player in the team as India put up a superb defensive display, shutting out the English. Hardik was all over the midfield, acting as the perfect link between the forwards and defenders. His absence was felt in the match against Wales as the forwards did get the right supply of passes as they went on the attack.
Chief coach Graham Reid, however, said Hardik’s absence was not the reason for the poor performance against Wales and therefore will not be felt in the match
“We have played the Olympics with 16 players so I would not say that was the reason (for today’s poor performance),” the 64-year-old coach had said. He said with Hardik in the lineup, his forwards would have enjoyed better supply.
The Indian forwards were also guilty of overcrowding in the final third, thus many times running into each other, an issue pointed out by chief coach Graham Reid after the match against Wales.
India also missed a creative spark in the midfield and forward line against a team that packs the defence and looks to capitalise on counter-attack — something New Zealand is also expected to do.
“If you see the England-Wales game, they did not score till the second quarter. It’s quite common against a team that plays like they do to have the first quarter bumping head against the defensive wall and trying to find a way through. I thought we still created a lot of opportunities tonight but unfortunately, we did not execute the way we should. That is the disappointing part,” said Reid in the post-match press conference after the India-Wales match.
Talking about the match against New Zealand, Reid said it is going to be very tough as New Zealand is expected to come out very energised as they have nothing to lose.
“The crossover game against New Zealand is going to be tough. We played them here in the Pro League and our first game against them was very tough, the second game was a bit easier but I am telling you they will come out just like Wales, energised. Looking forward to that match,” said Reid, who had guided India to a bronze medal in the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.
New Zealand, on the other hand, will depend on their ability to defend strongly and counter-attack swiftly against a side that will enjoy wholesome support from the capacity crowd that is expected to fill the Kalinga Stadium to the rafters.
They will also have to guard against late goals as they conceded against Malaysia.
The Indians only tend to lose shape and focus in the middle part of the game and also in the final minutes. New Zealand will be hoping to capitalise on it. If they manage to do so, hockey fans will be treated to a thrilling encounter.