Rio de Janeiro: India’s men’s hockey team will be up against a formidable Belgium side in the quarter-finals here on Sunday in its bid to enter the Olympic semi-finals for the first time in 36 years.
World No.5 India finished fourth in Pool B with two wins, two losses and a draw. Argentina on Friday beat Ireland 3-2 to claim the third spot and force India down by a place.
Now, the 2014 Asian Games champions will have to face Belgium, who have topped Pool A with four wins and a loss.
India have played well in most of the matches. Opening with a 3-2 win over Ireland, India lost to two-time defending champions Germany 1-2 after conceding a goal with just three seconds left on the clock.
They then fought back to beat Argentina 2-1 before suffering another close loss against last edition’s runners-up and reigning European champions, the Netherlands. In the final group phase game, they were held 2-2 by playing an aggressive match that was uncharacteristic of the way they had performed in the earlier games.
However, the good news for the Indians was that they held their own even against big teams like the Dutch and Germany. And they need to continue the good work against world No.6 Belgium.
India’s strikers lacked finishing skills against the Canadians and they need to work on it, while the penalty corner specialists — Rupinder Pal Singh (three goals) and V.R. Raghunath (two goals) have also missed opportunities at crunch moments.
However, India will be relieved that ace striker S.V. Sunil will be fit to face Belgium after suffering a wrist injury following a collision with a billboard during the match against Canada.
“He is getting better. He had some pain in his wrist and there was some inflammation soon after the fall. But the scan did not show anything which means he is fit to play,” captain P.R. Sreejesh said of his deputy, who plays a crucial role as the leader of the attack.
Sreejesh and the likes of Akashdeep Singh, Ramandeep Singh and Nikkin Thimmaiah will have to co-ordinate perfectly with the linkmen — Sardar Singh, Manpreet Singh, S.K. Uthappa and Danish Mujtaba.
“The team is confident and very excited to play the quarter-finals. The way we have performed with consistency has given the team the motivation and self-belief to win,” Sreejesh said.
“We need to give our 100 per cent on the day and that’s what we aim to do,” he added.
Belgium have risen in the ranks over the past decade and are rated as one of the most feared teams in world hockey for their attacking style of play.
Though Belgium’s only medal-winning performance in the Olympic Games came in 1920 when they won a Bronze, the team has tasted success in the recent past where they have given a tough fight to top teams like Australia who they played in the final of the FIH World Hockey League Final in Raipur last year.
Belgium are an experienced side, with the majority of the squad having surpassed the 100 international appearances mark including treble centurions John-John Dohmen and Jerome Truyens as well as double centurions Cedric Charlier, Thomas Briels, Felix Denayer and ace striker Tom Boon.
Though they are ranked at No.6, one below India, in the FIH World Ranking Sreejesh felt they will be a tough side to beat. “We cannot say that they are ranked below us so they are an easy side to beat. Going by statistics, Belgium has won four matches in their pool and have lost only one.
“So it is a tough team to beat but I think it’s all about how we cope with pressure on that day and that will be the key point,” stressed the 28-year-old goalkeeper.
Among other quarter-finals, reigning World champions Australia will face the Netherlands in a hockey treat as the two top ranked teams in world hockey go head-to-head in a re-match of the 2014 World Cup final.
Pool B winners Germany will take on Pool A’s fourth-ranked team New Zealand, who recorded a stunning victory over Belgium in their final pool match to secure a quarter-final place ahead of Britain.
A second place finish in Pool A has earned Spain a last eight meeting with Pan American champions Argentina.