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India ready with Plan B for Olympic qualification after Jakarta Asiad failure

Errol D’Cruz

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India captain Manpreet Singh addresses the media ahead of the FIH Men's Series Finals in Bhubaneswar starting Thursday. Photos: Hockey India

Panaji: India’s men’s hockey team would hope to complete formalities in the FIH Series Finals starting in Bhubaneswar on Thursday with minimal fuss.

The tournament, a pathway to Olympic qualification, will see eight nations split into two pools vie for two slots in the all-important Olympic qualifiers later this year. At World No. 5, India are well ahead of the field, the next best being South Africa (No. 16). Russia, opponents in the opener, are at No. 23.

Reaching the final at the Kalinga Stadium appears certain but in modern sport it’s never over until it’s over. The Bhubaneswar campaign represents India’s second attempt to qualify after Route 1 brought failure last year.

Defeat in the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games semifinals against Malaysia brought India’s bid to qualify directly for the Olympics to a screeching halt. Only the gold medal would have ensured a spot in Tokyo next year.

If by some quirk India fail to finish in the top two in Bhubaneswar, it, however, won’t be the end of their quest. According to the Olympic qualifying format, India stand an excellent chance of being invited to the qualifiers on the basis of world rankings.

World No. 5 Team India face 23rd-ranked Russia in their FIH Men’s Series Finals opener.

It works like this:

Five continental champions qualify directly for the Olympics. So do hosts Japan who also won the Asian Games gold medal—a result that frees up a spot in the qualifiers.

There will be 12 nations at the Olympics which means there would be seven spots to fill after the hosts and four continental champions (Europe, the Americas, Oceania and Africa) book berths.

The qualifiers would comprise seven double-leg play-offs among teams qualifying from the following routes.

  • The elite FIH Pro League (four nations).
  • FIH Series Finals (for nations not in the FIH Pro League) in Kuala Lumpur, Bhubaneswar and Le Touquet, France (six nations in all).
  • Four nations, apart from the above, determined by world rankings

Further qualifying spots could be freed up by nations winning continental championships and booking berths in qualifiers from either the FIH Pro League or the FIH Series Finals.

For instance, Australia could well win the Oceania title and finish among the top four in the FIH Pro League.

Or, for that matter, Canada (who won the FIH Series Finals in Kuala Lumpur last month) could win the Pan-American Games gold medal to free up another spot in the qualifiers.

And then, Olympic hosts Japan in the fray in Bhubaneswar, could enter the final to free up yet another spot. The world rankings would then be considered to fill up vacant spots and India, at No. 5, are virtually guaranteed one. Even if no further vacant spots are created, India are likely to squeeze into the qualifiers on the basis of world rankings.

India may well have followed their quest of qualifying for the Olympic qualifiers by jetting across the continents in the FIH Pro League incepted in January this year.

Hockey India, however, withdrew the team from the competition after pulling out the women’s team it reckoned stood little or no chance in qualifying via the Pro League because of their relatively low ranking (currently No. 9). It was a queer sense of gender equality and it deprived the men’s team of experiencing what appears to be an epoch-making competition unprecedented in the annals of sport.

L-R: Players representing Russia, South Africa, USA and Mexico at the Captain’s Press Conference in Bhubaneswar on Tuesday.

The Pro League route apparently wouldn’t have made too much of a difference to India’s prospects of qualifying for the Olympics but vying with the big guns would have helped a team on the up gain immeasurably.

The travel, adaptation to conditions and the development of bench strength would have helped keep pace with the leaders—World Cup champions Belgium, Olympic champions Argentina, Australia, The Netherlands, Germany, Great Britain, New Zealand and Spain.

Spain replaced India but the field reduced to eight when Pakistan withdrew after confirming participation.

The FIH Pro League, though, drew controversy in Europe where it threatened to play havoc with the club leagues—the very foundation of the game on the continent.

Tweaking of the regulations then allowed for a 32-player roster that has enabled team managements juggle with the playing 16 as national squad players assisted clubs during crucial league-ending phases in their respective countries as well as the European Hockey League (hockey’s version of the Champions League).

With India not enduring club vs country issues, a stable squad would have been a formidable force in the FIH Pro League with an excellent chance of finishing among the top four of the six-month event. Off the pitch, the Pro League with its home-and-away format would have done much for the sport’s profile as evinced in participating nations.

The Indian women, in the meantime, travel to Hiroshima, Japan, attempting to make the top two of the FIH Series Finals and thereby seal a spot in the Olympic qualifiers.

Hockey Lounge

India rout Japan to enter FIH Series final

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Bhubaneswar: India tore apart reigning Asian Games champion Japan 7-2 in a one-sided encounter to storm into the summit clash of the FIH Series Finals hockey tournament here on Friday, assuring themselves a place in the year end’s Olympic qualifying event.

Ramandeep Singh (23rd, 37th) scored a brace in his comeback match after a long injury lay-off while Harmanpreet Singh (7th), Varun Kumar (14th), Hardik Singh (25th), Gursahibjit Singh (43rd) and Vivek Sagar Prasad (47) all got on to the scoresheet.

Japan sounded the board through Kenji Kitazato (2nd) and Kota Watanabe (20th).

India will face South Africa in Saturday’s final while Japan will lock horns with the USA in the third place play-off match.

South Africa had earlier defeated USA 2-1 in the first semifinal.

Japan took the lead in the second minute from a counter attack with Kitazato turning in a pass from Kenta Tanaka from their first attack.

But India got their act together soon after, as Harmanpreet equalised from a second penalty corner.

Varun then beat the Japan defence with a powerful grounded flick to hand the hosts a 2-1 lead.

In the 20th minute, Japan scored their second goal from a counter-attack as Watanabe sounded the board after being set up by Kazuma Murata.

India restored their advantage three minutes later through Ramandeep, who scored his first goal for the country after returning from a year-long injury break.

Minutes later, India made it 4-2 when Hardik scored. There was no looking back from then on as Ramandeep scored his second goal of the day in the 37th minute while Gursahibjit and Vivek Sagar Prasad also netted from field efforts to register an emphatic win after the change of ends.

The FIH Series Finals provide two spots in the Olympic Qualifiers to be held in October-November this year.

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India brace for Samurai challenge in FIH Series Finals semis

Errol D’Cruz

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New Delhi: India may just find themselves under additional pressure when they take on Japan in the FIH Series Finals semifinal in Bhubaneswar on Friday.

The eight-nation tournament is a step toward Olympic qualification.

India, though well ahead in the World Rankings at 5th as opposed to Japan’s 18th, need to cross the semifinal hurdle to book their spot in the Olympic qualifiers scheduled for October-November.

Japan, as hosts and Asian Games champions, have already qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Siegfried Aikman’s team is likely to play without that element of pressure – and fear – when they tread the blue pitch at the Kalinga Stadium.

The hosts, coached by Graham Reid of Australia, though, are expected to pack too many guns for the sprightly Japanese.

In the Asian Games in Jakarta last year, India trounced the eventual gold medalists 8-0 in a pool match.

They then went one better , walloping the Japanese 9-0 in the Asian Champions Trophy in Muscat, Oman, shortly later.

Japan, however, went down by just 2-3 in the semifinals suggesting that a change in strategy and outlook, orchestrated by the astute Aikman, worked wonders.

The Japanese want to put their best foot forward at next year’s Olympics.

They last played at the Games way back in Mexico 1968 but made sure they qualified on merit by winning the 2018 Asian Games final in a thriller against Malaysia.

Japan came back from a 2-5 deficit to take the final against Malaysia to the shootout after a 6-6 draw in regulation time.

It was momentous, not merely for winning their first Asian Games gold medal. The keynote for success was determination and motivation to come back against such odds – the biggest being the assurance of already having clinched a spot in the Olympics as hosts.

“We qualified for the Olympics on merit,” boomed the otherwise soft-spoken Aikman at the 2018 Bhubaneswar World Cup he witnessed as an observer.

“We want to play the FIH Series Finals with the same intensity, especially since it means picking up ranking points ,” the Dutchman of Surinamese and Indian origin asserted.

Aikman must surely repose faith in his sprightly unit. They are fit, speedy and motivated. Players like midfielder Kenta Tanaka and namesake Seren are terrors to any defence.

Hirotaka Zendana packs a mighty punch at penalty corners and Kentaro Fakuda,Shota Yamada and Murata Kazuma can stretch even the best of teams.

No wonder Aikman declared, after Japan’s 6-2 win over Poland in the cross-overs on Wednesday, that his team’s aim is to win the tournament in Bhubaneswar.

His words after the semifinal victory revealed a lack of fear in playing India.

“Life itself is a challenge. Playing a good team like India is a big challenge. And we happily accept this challenge,” the genial Aikman said.

The Dutchman’s grim visage gave way to a beaming smile after the rousing win over Poland.

Japan began the tournament slowly, labouring to a 3-1 win over 39th-ranked Mexico before pulling off a 2-0 win over South Africa ranked two notches above at No. 16.

A 2-2 draw against USA meant Japan finished second in the pool on goal difference and would need to win their crossover to make the semifinals and clash with India prematurely.

The 26th ranked Americans beat 16th ranked-South Africa 2-0, a crucial result in the pool which went a long way to fetching them top spot and a direct entry into the semifinals.

For all that, India know they have the firepower to quell Japan’s bid to make the final and play the winners of South Africa vs USA.

But there have chinks in the armoury.

Poland (ranked No. 21) stifled India’s forward line where the effervescent Akashdeep Singh and sharpshooting Mandeep were kept on a leash even though the hosts won 3-1.

The hosts began in whirlwind fashion, swamping Russia 10-0 but lacked the fluency they would have liked while playing the 22nd ranked nation floundering in the heat that often soared into the mid-30s Celsius.

Then, in a 10-0 win against the lowest ranked team in the competition Uzbekistan, the penalty corner battery left much to be desired despite three drag-flickers – Harmanpreet Singh, Amit Rohidas and Varun Kumar in the team.

Still, India have converted 38.46 percent (10/26) of their penalty corners. Japan have scored from 25 percent (6/24) of the set-piece.

Japan have averaged 36.75 circle entries – the latest gauge for match domination – against India’s 47.66, mainly boosted by playing 43rd ranked Uzbekistan where they registered 63.

The compelling stat, though, is the 13-1 head-to-head win record since 2013 with a 63-15 goal tally in favour of India.

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India thrash Uzbekistan to storm into FIH Series Finals semis

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India finished atop Pool A with an all-win record.

Bhubaneswar: Favourites India stormed into the semifinals of the FIH Series Finals hockey meet as they thrashed Uzbekistan 10-0, here on Monday.

Akashdeep Singh netted a hat-trick (11th, 26th and 53rd minute), while Varun Kumar (4th, 22nd minute) and Mandeep Singh (30th, 60th minute) scored a brace each for the hosts.

Amit Rohidas (15th minute), Nilkanta Sharma (27th minute) and Gursahibjit Singh (45th minute) also sounded the board as the Indians had a field day.

India finished atop Pool A with an all-win record and will play the winner of the cross-over match between Japan and Poland in the semifinals on Friday, while the USA, which topped Pool B, will take on the winners of the other cross-over game between Russia and South Africa.

If the scoreline was anything to go by, it was a lopsided affair from the get-go. After five penalty corners, India took the lead in the final one with Varun convering it.

Akashdeep then got on the score-sheet as he found the net from a rebound in the 11th minute. Four minutes later, Rohidas converted a penalty corner to make the scoreline 3-0 in India’s favour.

The story was no different in the second quarter as India netted four more goals to go into the breather with a 7-0 lead.

India dominated after the change of ends as well, but sounded the board only once in the third quarter when Gursahibjit guided the ball into the net in the 45th minute.

Aksshdeep completed his treble before Mandeep netted another in the dying minutes to round off the rout.

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