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Hockey Olympic Qualifiers: Pressure on both India, USA in opener; hosts bank on crowd support (Preview)

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Hockey Olympic Qualifiers: Pressure on both India, USA in opener; hosts bank on crowd support (Preview)

Ranchi, Jan 12 (Ajit Weekly News) Two days before the Makar Sankranti festival when the sun transitions into Capricorn heralding the northward movement of the planet, the Indian women’s hockey steps into the Marang Gomke Jaipal Singh Hockey Stadium here on Saturday for their opening match against the United States, hoping to clinch a berth in the upcoming Olympic Games in Paris.

Besides clinching a ticket to the Olympics, a good finish in the Women’s FIH Hockey Olympic Qualifiers Tournament 1 in Ranchi will also help them maintain their rankings and will be a morale booster ahead of the FIH Pro League and the Paris Olympic Games.

But the focus at the moment is on booking their ticket to the Olympics and the campaign starts with a potentially banana-skin clash with the United States, a team with which they have an inferior head-to-head record. In 15 matches played between the two teams so far, India have won four and lost nine games while two have ended in a draw.

India defeated the USA in their last two clashes, winning 4-0 and 4-2 in the 2021-22 FIH Hockey Pro League. But those were the post-Covid matches in which most of the teams’ preparations were disrupted unlike the Indian team, which was stationed in a bio-bubble in the SAI Centre Bengaluru and could conduct the camp after the initial lockdown period.

Before that, the two teams had clashed in 2019 in the two-match Olympic Qualifier for Tokyo in Bhubaneswar when the Indian team had realised how swiftly the USA team could retaliate as they came back from a 5-1 defeat in the first game to outwit the Indian team 1-4, the hosts clinching their second successive berth in the Tokyo Olympics based on an extra goal they scored.

So, Saturday’s clash will be a key one for India as it will set the tone for the FIH Hockey Olympic Qualifiers in Ranchi as they are placed in a tough Pool B with New Zealand and Italy as the others in the four-team group. Pool A includes World No.5 Germany, 2018 Asian Games gold medallist Japan, Chile and the Czech Republic.

On Saturday, New Zealand will start Pool B proceedings against Italy while in Pool A, Germany, the favourites to clinch the top spot here, open their campaign against minnows Chile in the opening match of the event while Japan play the Czech Republic.

While the Indian team has a settled look to it, it has seen a transition in recent times with a few youngsters making their way into the squad. The hosts will be going into the tournament without seasoned players like Deep Grace Ekka, Vandana Katariya, Sushila Chanu and ace drag-flicker Gurjit Kaur.

And these changes have opened up a few problem areas for India. They now have an inexperienced forward line and penalty corner conversion. In the absence of Katariya, the team will depend on experienced forward Lalremsiami and attacking midfielders Navneet Kaur and Salima Tete. In the absence of Deep Grace, Monika, Udita and Nikki Pradhan may have to curb their attacking instincts a bit and play a deeper role.

The penalty corner conversion could turn out to be India’s Achilles heel in Ranchi as they will depend a lot on the 20-year-old Deepika with the likes of Salima Tete getting to come in as a backup hitter.

The Indian team is banking on its extensive preparation and the overwhelming support from the vociferous crowd that is expected to pack the stadium to the rafters.

“The Olympics is the biggest tournament, so of course there will be pressure. Every team here wants to qualify for the Olympics and the team is aware of the challenges they will face but as Savita said, the team is well-prepared and playing in Ranchi is an advantage. We saw how much they rallied behind the team when the Asian Champions Trophy was held here, I believe their support will count this time too. If our team plays to our potential, I know we stand a sure shot to qualify,” said India chief coach Janneke Schopman.

Talking about India’s first opponent, the USA, the 46-year-old coach who had worked with the senior USA team from 2017 to 2020, said her team will have to defend well in the opening match as their opponents have pace upfront.

“Every team here is for one thing only and that is for qualifying. I think rankings, where people are and where the team stands do not matter anymore because everyone knows they have an opportunity. So, we have to be ready as they will come out thinking that they have a very good opportunity to beat us. So, we have to match their intensity. Knowing the US mentality very well, they will fight and they compete all the time and I think if we can meet that competition then we can play a very good match against them,” she said.

“They (Team USA) have speed, are strong and they have some very skilful players as well and they have speed upfront. So, we will have to defend well and if we defend well, we will have opportunities all around and we also have skills,” said the former Netherlands international who won a gold with her native country in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Captain Savita too expressed confidence in her team’s ability to withstand the pressure and said they are excited to play in front of the supportive crowd. “This is the Olympic qualifier and all teams are here hoping to qualify for Paris and therefore it will definitely be a challenge. However, we have prepared well and worked on our shortcomings and problem areas,” said Savita.

The India captain said they will play their usual aggressive brand of hockey and look to score as many goals as possible.

The team has worked with the mental conditioning coach Peter Haberl, who joined the setup in October 2023. “Peter had a few sessions with the team before the Olympic qualifiers and has worked on certain aspects,” said Schopman.

Team USA on their part the United States team is confident of its chances and coach David Passmore said they are ready for the challenge of playing India in India.

“We’re really looking forward to playing India in India with the crowd and all the excitement surrounding that game. But I think as with any of our games, we prepare in a certain process that we kind of follow with each and every game and we’re looking to do the same for that game as well,” said Passmore, who joined Team USA in August 2022 after serving as the assistant coach for Ireland’s women’s team since 2017 and Ireland’s National Development and Under-21 head coach since 2014.

He said his team will be under pressure playing India in India but said they are trying to use it as a privilege and try and really learn from that mindset,

“It’ll probably have a lot of pressure, but the pressure is a privilege and we’re trying to really lean into that mindset. And I think our team is well prepared in a lot of different ways from our preparation to handle a match like that and to handle, you know, the crowd excitement,” said the former Irish senior men’s coach, who has worked as a lecturer in coaching science and talent development since 2012.

With the USA quietly confident in their preparations just like the Indians, it would be a tough encounter for both sets of players. How they handle the pressure and perform on that particular day.

–Ajit Weekly News


News Credits – I A N S

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