Bhubaneswar: Legendary Ashok Kumar calls it a "neck-to-neck ladai." Former India defender VR Raghunath feels it will be decided by goalkeepers and penalty corners. Ric Charlesworth declares that India won't get any free zones. Coach Harendra Singh says his team will approach it as a pre-quarter-final. On Sunday evening, when India and Belgium come face to face for only the fourth time in World Cup history, these opinions will matter for everything and nothing as there will be precious little separating the teams.
Fresh from their scrappy 5-0 win over South Africa and rejuvenated after a three-day break, India will look to get their act together against a far superior opposition.
Talking of scrap, though, and Belgium did their share of grinding to get their campaign off to a winning start when they beat a resolute Canada 2-1 on the opening night of this World Cup. Both teams have areas to work on, and a recent surge in number of matches between the two sides leaves little room for surprises.
On match eve, perspicuity and pragmatism marked Harendra's interaction with the press. "We are not relieved (after the opening win against South Africa). We have to enjoy the pressure. If you have to go (straight) to the quarter-finals, then Sunday's match is a pre-quarter-final," he said.
Belgian captain Thomas Briels reiterated the thought. "I think the team that wins will top the group and get to knock-outs. India will play 100 percent to win this game and so will we. It will be a very tough game."
The similarities in the rival camps do not end there. Both teams struggled with penalty-corner conversions in their first games. Belgium got seven of them, and they faltered each time. India got five against South Africa, and they didn't get a single drag-flick in. The two goals scored on short-corners came on rebound.
"I think we need to work on our penalty corners and I think we have to score more. If we are getting seven corners (vs Canada), we at least have to score one or two. I am happy with certain patches of our play from Canada and the amount of chances we created," Briels said.
Given their linear style of play, Belgium are likely to put the Indian midfield and defence under serious pressure, and while the backline of Surender Kumar, Harmanpreet Singh, Birender Lakra, and PR Sreejesh ensured a clean sheet in their previous fixture, the space and time that South Africa got in the Indian D in the third quarter would have kept Belgium interested.
Briels admitted they will "analyse everything" " expectedly " while Harendra called for an improved performance in midfield. Belgium's forward-pressing style means a higher percentage of circle entries, making ball possession important for the hosts.
"Belgium have been a good team for last four-five years with good circle penetration. But the Indian team has set a trademark of attacking hockey over the last four-five months. We won't compromise on that, but we will have to take care of the midfield. Our players will take chances in there. When a mistake happens, our team has to defend that. We will keep playing at a high speed. Whoever can sustain that pace will win," the coach said while emphasising on the need to reduce unforced errors.
"Forced errors can lead to mistakes, but in modern hockey, you have to cut down unforced errors. Also, we have to make them run after the ball. They can't score if we have the ball with us," the coach said.
'Past results don't mean anything' India and Belgium have been involved in quite a few close encounters of late, but the Indian fans will remember the Hockey World League Quarter-finals last year, when India, after being locked 3-3 in regulation time, prevailed 3-2 in shootout.
Stats Courtesy: BG Joshi
Earlier this year, India lost three of the four games against Belgium at the Four Nations' Invitational Tournament in New Zealand, the last of which came in the tournament final when the Europeans prevailed 3-0 in shootout after the scoreline read 4-4 in regulation time. Then, in the Champions Trophy, India drew Belgium 1-1, the equaliser coming in the dying minutes.
Harendra insisted past is of little value to him " even the wins. "I don't think about what has happened. I just remember important moments from the games, not the results," he said.
While much has been said about India's lack of big-match experience " even though the team has seven players from the 2016 Junior World Cup " it's worth noting that Belgium come with truckloads of matches under their belt.
Ever since they won the Champions Challenge Cup in Johannesburg in 2011 after beating, well, India, in the final (4-3), they have retained their core, and a cursory look at their squads for the 2012 London Olympics, 2014 World Cup, 2016 Rio Olympics, and 2018 Champions Trophy attests to it.
Then, there are some from the 2016 Junior World Cup, besides a certain Arthur Van Doren " two-time FIH Rising Star of the Year (2016, 2017), and the current FIH Player of the Year (2017) " that India will have to deal with.
Belgium coach Shane McLeod, the reigning 'Men's Coach of the Year', said the experience of his team will be a factor, but acknowledged the advantages India have with a young side.
"I think we do have an advantage (experience-wise). We have a balanced team, but India have the exuberance of youth. They have players who want to impress and play exciting hockey. And, hopefully, the experience of our players will help stop that. You'll see a bit of a mix. Often with youth, comes speed. We're mindful of the pace with which the game could be played," McLeod said.
The New Zealander also listed the vocal Bhubaneswar crowd as an advantage to the hosts, before pointing out penalty-corner conversion and goalkeeping as potentially deciding areas. Belgium's typically European style of forward press and India's vow to attack at all costs may translate into higher short corners and an increased focus on custodians.
While Belgium have a rock under the bar by the name of Vincent Vanasch (winner of the latest FIH's 'Goalkeeper of the Year' trophy), their reserve 'keeper, Loic Van Doren, was adjudged the best goalkeeper at the Junior World Cup two years earlier.
"Yeah, if one of the 'keepers has a better day than the other, that's going to be the deciding factor of the game. I think Sreejesh has made some really good saves in the last few years and has turned into a world-class goalkeeper," he said.
With both teams vying for a straight qualification to knock-outs, the 15,000-strong home crowd is expected to be treated to some quality hockey on Sunday. Scrappy days could well be behind us.