The hosts showed one of the tournament favourites Belgium the door and will have to do that again on Friday to keep India’s hopes of a successful title defence alive. The stakes this time will be a lot higher, for a win against the six-time champions and most successful team Germany in the semifinals will put title-holders India a step away from a second consecutive title. In the other semifinal, surprise package France will face Argentina.
The buzz at the Kalinga stadium returned on Thursday as the number of invitees and students in the stands swelled. A crowd of close to 1500 attended the India vs Belgium quarterfinal, and it’s expected to be the same on Friday, if not more. The tournament remains officially closed for ticket buying spectators.
NEVER RULE GERMANY OUT
In the quarterfinal, Germany’s unbeaten campaign was at the edge of a cliff, trailing 1-2 against Spain with just 27 seconds left on the clock when they scored the equaliser. In the shootout, they won 3-1 for their fourth victory on the trot.
“You never rule Germany out, whatever the situation. They have proven that over the years,” said India coach Graham Reid, who is also the senior men’s team coach and is overseeing the India colts in this tournament.
France are the other unbeaten team in the last-four stage, and they started their campaign by stunning defending champions India 5-4. But since that opening day, it’s been a different Indian team, with new heroes emerging in every match.
Sanjay, currently the tournament’s third-highest scorer with eight goals, hogged the limelight with his hat-trick against France. In the next three games, names like Sharda Nand Tiwari, Araijeet Singh Hundal, Uttam Singh, goalkeepers Pawan and Prashant Chauhan, Yashdeep Siwach turned into captain Vivek Sagar Prasad’s trusted lieutenants.
With Sanjay, Tiwari, Hundal and Abhishek Lakra stepping up to the plate and delivering, Indian hockey suddenly looks flooded with drag-flickers. Hundal, who is a rare combination of a striker and a drag-flicker standing over six feet tall, has five goals to his name. Tiwari and Uttam have four each.
The prolific pool-stage wins over Canada (13-1) and Poland (8-2) were registered on the back of those names firing and taking India into the quarterfinals.
The script of the win over Belgium in the quarters was written with a different ink. The defence had to be at the top of its game against the fast junior Red Lions. India’s man-to-man marking was at its sharpest and the structure inside the Indian 23-yard resembled a fortress that the Belgians failed to breach.
It was only late in the final quarter that India were under the pump, when goalkeeper Pawan raised his game to add a few more bricks to India’s last line of defence and keep Belgium at bay.
Interestingly, Indian strikers may face something exactly like that against the traditionally strong German back-line.
WHAT THE STATS SAY – INDIA IMPRESSIVE
India have so far made 132 circle entries in the tournament — the most by any team. While that statistic remains threatening, Indian forwards will be reminded by their coach to not over-carry the ball in the circle instead of finding an opponent’s foot to earn a penalty corner.
It was one mistake that India’s forward-line committed against Belgium; and Reid knows they won’t go scot-free game after game and must take advantage of their drag-flickers’ good form.
“When you are unsure, you hold onto the ball a little bit longer, (either) you are nervous or maybe your options are not clear,” said Reid after the win against Belgium. “But I would prefer them to find a foot than carrying the ball just for the sake of carrying.”
(Hockey India Photo)
The Germans are aware of India’s PC strength, and their coach sounded a touch wary too.
“We will try to keep the Indian team outside our circle as much as possible because the best (penalty) corner defence is not conceding them,” said Valentin Altenburg. “It will be difficult to defend a lot of them, so we need to be better outside the circle to stay in the game.”
The German team was in attendance at the stadium during India’s quarterfinal, trying to study the home team’s game as the clock ticked towards full time to signal India’s win.
“We have seen that they can dribble, they can score, they can defend and have a good corner (drill). So we need to be at our very best to have a chance,” he added.
One statement from Altenburg that underlines the significance of the Junior World Cup stood out while he took questions from the media.
Is winning a Junior World Cup more important or identifying young talent?
“I would say it’s both,” said Altenburg. If you ask me personally, I love to win. At the same time, it is a very important part of the Junior World Cup to identify talent.”
He ended the interaction on a sporting note.
“If we can bring our best performance tomorrow and the Indian team is still stronger and wins the game, I will be very happy.”
It will be interesting to see how how the script unfolds this evening.