India begin HWL Semi-Final campaign against France

Antwerp, June 19 (IANS) Following a relatively long break, the Sardar Singh-led Indian hockey team will begin their campaign with more than a point to prove when they take on World No.18 France in their Pool A opener of the Hockey World League (HWL) Semi-Final here on Saturday.

The Asian giants have had a relatively good summer with a bronze medal finish in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup and a 3-0 win over Japan in a bilateral four-Test home series.

Though India don’t have much of a motive as both their objectives for this tournament have been achieved. A top-3 finish in the tournament will qualify a team for the 2016 Olympics while a top-4 will make them eligible for the HWL Final in November-December.

India, however, have achieved both their targets. They became the first team to secure a Rio Games berth when they won the 2014 Asian Games gold. As hosts, they are also assured of a spot in the HWL Final.

However, they will look to put their best foot forward under new chief coach Paul van Ass who would like to make his mark on Indian hockey.

“The boys look in good form as they have showcased great play during the practice matches. But tomorrow will be the real test that they have to pass. Our practice match against Great Britain helped the team to work on the initial pressure that we had planned,” said van Ass.

“I am hoping they continue this. With France they have to be careful as they are a strong team and will not give in easily. The key will be to get the crucial penalty corners and convert them.”

India defeated France 1-0 in the practice match couple of days back via a penalty corner conversion by drag flick specialist Rupinder Pal Singh.

Though much more was expected from World No.9 India as they narrowly moved past France before losing 1-2 to Belgium, they came back strongly to beat the United States 4-0 and modern powerhouse Great Britain 3-1 in the other practice matches.

With a lot of youngsters in the squad, the tournament will also help the Indian team try out new combinations for more flexibility and balance, something that Sardar has been focussing on for some time now.

“The tournament is important for us as here we will be implementing new strategies which will help us gauge on where we stand as a team. We clashed against France during our practice session. We won the match and are still not over confident,” said the skipper.

“The match against them got to the forefront that we had to capitalise on the initial chances and create pressure. For this we will strive to have maximum possession of the ball and keep attacking.”

India has yet another advantage in head-to-head against France as they notched up a 6-2 win over them when they previously locked horns in the 2013 HWL Semi-Finals in the Netherlands.

While both teams will eye a win to attain a better record, India will look to continuing their goal scoring spree as they implement their new strategies, based more on attack.

Rupinder will be the main penalty corner specialist but trust veteran Dutch tactician van Ass to try out different variations. In the mean time, forwards Akashdeep Singh, Nikkin Thimmaiah and Yuvraj Walmiki will be looking at sneaking in field goals and putting pressure on the opponents.

A win against France will be crucial as they will then be able to build momentum to take on higher-ranked teams, such as Poland (June 23), arch-rivals Pakistan (June 26) and reigning World Champions Australia (June 28) for a place in the knockouts.

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