A loss that keeps feet on ground

Mihir Vasavda
Hockey Premiere League, India Belgium hockey match, Hockey Premiere League India vs Belgium, India vs Belgium Hockey Premiere League, Sports news, Indian Express

On Sunday, whenever they had the ball, Indian players almost instinctively played it forward and wisely used their dribbles and 3-D skills to create the 11 goal-scoring chances. (Source: Twitter/HockeyIndia)

As far as lessons go, there's more for the rip-roaring, yet error-prone, India to takeaway from Sunday's 3-2 loss to Belgium than the two wins and a draw so far in the Pro League.

First off, it’s an indication of the ground they have to still make up when playing the world's best — Belgium, the world and European champions apart from being top-ranked, are the gold standard in world hockey at the moment.

It also shows that despite all the 'progress' made under Graham Reid in the last eight months, and post-Rio in general, they remain prone to goofing up, especially in tight situations; as evidenced by Harmanpreet Singh's thoughtless pass, after India had twice clawed their way back, in front of the Indian 'D' that landed straight at a Belgian stick and resulted in them scoring the winning goal.

But most of all, the defeat will ensure the high-flying Indians remain grounded. India's build-up to the last two Olympics has followed a cycle: play well in the matches and events leading up to the Games, and flop on the big stage against the same opponents.

Reid is seasoned enough not to fall in that trap. Moments before the push-back on Sunday, he was asked about the improvements the team has made under him, in the view of Saturday's 2-1 win. He, instead, dwelled on the improvements the team can still make – ‘create more chances concede fewer penalty corners.’

To the players' credit, they did both. Even though India could not match Belgium's artistry and technical abilities, they had more circle penetrations and shots on goal than Belgium compared to the night before.

On Saturday, Belgium produced scintillating attacking display, entering India's circle 40 times and managing 24 shots on target, but still lost. That pattern reversed on Sunday, as India had 28 circle penetrations and 11 shots; a stat more in sync with Reid's endeavour to make India play an attacking brand of hockey.

Even in defeat, and under pressure of finding the equaliser, India did not give up certain ethos that the Australian coach has been trying to instill, which is to keep passing the ball forward. It seems an obvious thing to do but in the past, India have panicked when the opposition is protecting their lead. They began to pass the ball laterally to backward, never really putting much pressure.

On Sunday, whenever they had the ball, Indian players almost instinctively played it forward and wisely used their dribbles and 3-D skills to create the 11 goal-scoring chances. That was how they fought their way back in the second game against the Netherlands last month, and very nearly did it again. They were thwarted by an in-form Belgian goalkeeper Vincent Vanasch, combined with profligacy-cum-poor positioning inside the 'D' of their own strikers.

The concern for Reid would be the manner in which India conceded space in the midfield and the ease with which Belgium sliced open the Indian defence — in both matches.

Midfield shows gulf in class

Midfield first. In absence of SV Sunil, India rarely use the right flank to initiate attacks. The veteran wingers pace continues to be a big asset for the team and gives an extra attacking option, even if he sometimes overdoes it. On Sunday, India relied on defender Surender Kumar on the left to win tackles and then launch counterattacks.

Else, they took the aerial route: bypassing the midfield and playing long balls towards the forwards waiting inside the Belgian circle. But on days when trapping isn't the best, like Sunday, such a strategy doesn't really reap rewards. Only Manpreet Singh seems to be able to have the vision to play defence-splitting passes but he lacks support in the middle, and he anyway spends more time bailing out the defence than launching attacks.

Belgium's star-studded line-up took advantage of this vast gulf in the midfield to routinely put India's defence under pressure, and it was a bit of chaos when India had their backs to the wall.

Reid chose to bench Rupinderpal Singh and gave Birendra Lakra some match time instead. But Rupinderpal's calmness inside the 'D' was missed apart from the fact that he remains India's go-to man in penalty corners, ahead of Harmanpreet and Amit Rohidas. Once again, if not for goalkeeper PR Sreejesh, the scoreline could have been better for Belgium.

The loss means India's brief undefeated run in the Pro League, which was raising some hopes, comes to an end. But that will hardly matter. Crucially, this defeat should keep the expectations in check, especially with Australia up next.

Scoreline: India 2 (Vivek Prasad 15', Amit Rohidas 17') lost to Belgium (Alexander Hendrickx 3', Maxime Plennevaux 17',26')