Hockey World Cup 2018: In Argentina versus Spain thriller, lessons abound for Harendra Singh’s India

Hockey World Cup 2018: In Argentina versus Spain thriller, lessons abound for Harendra Singh’s India


Bhubaneswar: At the end of the third quarter of the pulsating Argentina-Spain match on Thursday, television cameras zoomed at the players’ arena of the Kalinga Stadium. On the giant screen flashed the toothy grins of Nilakanta Sharma, Chinglensana Singh, Manpreet Singh, PR Sreejesh, Birendra Lakra, and Varun Kumar — pretty much the backbone of the Indian team.

As the men joked and posed for selfies, one hoped their vision went from self-indulgence to self-appraisal, even so as both the European teams were in the middle of an attacking masterclass.

Traditionally, Argentina and Spain prefer to sit back and defend. Moves are initiated from the midfield, pace is controlled from the centre, and attacks are mounted by a battery of fearsome forwards.

Thursday was different. Both teams went on the offensive early, and Total Hockey replaced positional play. In the flexibility and relentlessness of the Europeans lay a lesson for the Indians, who play Belgium on Sunday. It was a tutorial on attack, man-marking, penalty corner conversions, deflections, deft touches, and most of all, fitness.

Manpreet’s India are among the fittest teams in the world, and coach Harendra was confidence personified on Tuesday when he declared India have the stamina and strength to launch attacks even in the last quarter. The match against South Africa barely tested India, and Harendra ensured he kept his word with some intelligent substitutions.

The boys responded with three goals in the second half, one of which came in the last quarter. But do they have the legs and lungs to withstand a barrage of attack similar to the one that Argentina and Spain exchanged in the opening quarter?

On Thursday, the first 15 minutes saw five goals, with both teams playing a hockey variant of pound-for-pound boxing.

Argentina made their intentions clear in the first 20 seconds when Gonzalo Peillat lobbed a 60-yard aerial pass that fell just short of the Spanish 25m line. It was a sign of things to come, as power and precision became a template for next 60 minutes of gripping hockey.

There’s a lesson there. Against South Africa, India had a chance to experiment with some aerial shots, but the hosts preferred to rely on ground strokes. There were a few overhead hits, of course, and Mandeep Singh even trapped one beautifully in the South African D and went on to enforce, and score, from a penalty corner. India’s reluctance with the long aerial balls could be a tactical move too, but against teams with better speed and man-marking skills, runs through the flanks will get tougher and India would do well to find alternate ways to send the ball across.

With an average age of 23.4 years, hosts have fielded one of the youngest teams in the competition. And with an average age of 30, Argentina are the oldest. Sure, fitness has many parameters, but the argument used by Harendra in the recent past to quell experience-versus-youth debate has, almost always, involved the insistence on the age factor.

“I’d say we are not old, we are experienced,” chuckled Agustin Mazzilli, fresh from scoring a brace.

Among other things India could learn from Thursday night is to stop mixing age with fitness. Of course, a youngster will have stronger muscle fibres and faster recovery, but that’s where balance comes in. It’s too late for Harendra to dwell over team composition now, but an openness to occasionally revisit the latest template may help. Sure, seven players from the Junior World Cup have made their way to the current squad, but with destiny and design combining to rob India of some of its most gifted players, it remains to be seen how the team would respond under siege.

For the record, 12 of the 18 players in the Argentina squad played the 2016 Rio Olympics together, and Belgium, among the most improved teams in recent times, do not believe in knee-jerk chops either.

In the third minute of the match, the Spanish Armada sailed across the deep blue turf and cut right into the Argentine D from the left. It was a sensational burst of energy from Enrique Gonzalez, the Player of the Tournament at the Junior World Cup in Lucknow two years back, as he beat a converging herd of defenders to collect a short pass from Alvaro Iglesias and score from close range.

Moments later, Argentina punched back as Juan Lopez’s pass was deflected by Agustin Mazzilli into the far corner. Spain were relentless though as Gonzalez initiated a move from the right, and found a defender’s foot. Josep Romeu, after some creative variation by Sergi Enrique, converted the chance and the Spaniards restored the lead in the 14th minute.

Argentina responded the very next minute as Lucas Villa’s pass was deflected in by a diving Mazzilli. The Olympic champions ended the breathless quarter with a penalty corner, which Peillat slotted in on the right of goalkeeper Quico Cortes.

Cue Harmanpreet Singh. India’s primary drag-flicker tried everything he could to score from the penalty corner, but couldn’t beat the South African custodian. If he’d watched Thursday’s game closely, Harmanpreet would know that keeping a calm head at the top of D is as important as the flick itself.

Also, contrast this quarter with India’s first 15 minutes against South Africa. Mandeep, unmarked and on the run, fails to trap a pass from Manpreet inside the D in the third minute to lose a scoring opportunity. Minutes later, Lalit Upadhyay and Dilpreet make circle entries, but both fail to score. India end the quarter 2-0 instead of 4-0. They win the match 5-0, but questions remain.

Argentina and Spain have set an unreasonable bar at this World Cup, and India will have to play out of their skins to match it. Watching the contest with his guard down and confidence up, Harendra would have taken notes. Of what good will come of it, Sunday will have the answers.