CHENNAI: The Indian men’s hockey side have played 54 Olympic encounters since 1984. Their 55th — on the pristine blue astroturf of the North Pitch at Oi Hockey Stadium on Sunday — will be their most important match of the last four decades. Beat Great Britain and the possibilities are endless. Lose to Great Britain and it’s likely that they will not get a better chance to win a medal at the Games for a generation. When the draw was made, India would have picked Great Britain as the ideal quarterfinal opponent.
The last time they finished second or higher in the group stage was in 1980, when they won gold. Since that chastening 1-7 defeat against Australia, they have found a way past Spain before convincing wins against Argentina and Japan. The momentum they have built up over the past six days mean they start favourites against a side they have faced an awful lot in recent times.
The match itself promises to be an extremely open one, with both sides capable of eye-catching moments. India’s penalty corner exponents — Harmanpreet Singh, Rupinder Pal Singh and Varun Kumar — have come up with clever variations and that’s a great weapon to have in knockout competition. That they have relied on dead ball situations to score a truckload of goals is also indicative of two things.
One, they are able to work themselves into good openings in the opposition D in order to get the penalty corners or penalty strokes. Apart from the match against Australia, they have scored at least one goal from a corner in five games, including two against Japan. Two, their variations are still not being worked out by the opposition rushers and goalkeeper. And all three of their specialists are in good form. To add to this confidence, their own defensive shape while defending corners is pretty good. For example, against Spain, they didn’t concede even one from the seven they faced. All these little things contribute immensely to building confidence.
Katariya’s hat-trick puts women in quarterfinals
The women wobbled but they also reached the quarterfinals thanks to a stupendous hat-trick by Vandana Katariya, the first of the hockey programme. Three times the women led South Africa and three times they lost that lead. But Katariya kept her cool in the last quarter to score what proved to be the winner. And when Great Britain beat Ireland later, they advanced to the knockouts for the first time in their Olympics history.