BHUBANESWAR: It's been an interesting little phase for the hosts since they last played a game, a thrilling 2-2 draw against Belgium on Sunday. In the ensuing five days, all but one member of the 18-man squad took a break as they headed to a retreat near Puri, a 90-minute drive from the city. PR Sreejesh had to miss the trip as he had to go back to Ernakulam to tend to his ailing father.
They have had a couple of training sessions to get back into the groove but a bug has laid low at least a few players. After skipper Manpreet Singh missed a session on Thursday thanks to a sore throat, midfield mainstay Kothajit Singh is struggling with a fever. The potential absence of a couple of players may make the fixture against Canada on Saturday a trickier proposition.
That’s before you consider the fact that the Red Caribou, who have one point from two games, have troubled India in the recent past. At the Rio Olympics, they twice came back to draw 2-2 before they went one better at the World League Semi-Finals last year. India did beat them 3-0 in the group stage but Scott Tupper’s men exacted revenge by winning 3-2 in the fifth-sixth place match later.
Those successes against India have been achieved because of Canada’s structural integrity in defence and discipline in the attack. They don’t commit men forward at every opportunity, have no qualms about not having possession. Their no-nonsense approach is designed to yield maximum returns against a team not giving their 100 per cent.
Coach Paul Bundy hinted at it as one of the factors behind their decent recent returns against the hosts. “I think it’s going to be a highly competitive encounter tomorrow (Saturday),” he said. “The last three matches between the two nations have been split equally (one win, one draw, and one loss). We have a good work ethic... gritty in our defence and stick to our game plan.” Their game plan has been well-documented — a low block with midfielders and wingers acting as a second defensive screen when they don’t have the ball. When executed to perfection, it has the ability to choke the opposition in the attacking third.
This is where the likes of Akashdeep Singh and Dilpreet Singh, forwards who are adept at playing the creative hook, will hope to make a difference. The 24-year-old Akashdeep will look to reprise his role as a withdrawn forward after playing in a more traditional position against the Red Lions. His movement and peripheral vision — an asset against defensive sides — might just be the key to pulling defenders away to create space for the likes of Mandeep Singh to come into the equation.
There could also be other surprises in store, especially if Belgium do not get the desired result against South Africa. “We have spoken about this (to shake-up a bit) in the meeting room the last few days,” coach Harendra Singh said. “We will try and play a different formation and try a couple of variations depending on the situation.”
It will also be interesting to see how long the group takes to get their rhythm going after an inordinately long gap. Manpreet, though, did not think it would be an issue. “We worked on our fitness (during the five-day gap) so that it doesn’t go down. There was time to study the other team, so we did that.”
If they have properly done their homework, what transpired at Rio and in London are unlikely to be seen again.
India will top the group and advance to the quarters as long as they better Belgium’s result against South Africa. If both teams win, the Red Lions will have to win by a margin of at least five goals and hope India don’t win by more than one. If India draw or lose, they will finish second as long as Belgium win. If both draw, the former will finish as table-toppers.