Bhubaneswar: On 31 May, 2014, India, playing their first match of that World Cup in Hague, fielded the then 19-year-old Mandeep Singh to unsettle the famed Belgian defence. Mandeep, on his Cup debut, opened the scoring for his team and India looked certain to eke out a draw until John-John Dominique Dohmen scored in the last minute to snatch a win.
On 28 June, 2018, at the Champions Trophy in Breda, India led 1-0 till the 59th minute, thanks to an early goal from Harmanpreet Singh. India held the lead till the 59th minute, until Loick Luypaert converted a penalty in the 60th minute to leave India high and dry.
Mandeep was there too, this time in the middle of an ordinary game. His eighth-minute strike had hit the post. His 41st-minute tap-in had gone just wide, and his goal two minutes later was disallowed due to obstruction. Had one of those three chances materialised, the result against the Rio Olympic silver-medallists could have been different.
"Against stronger teams, we have to take our chances. We can't afford such slip-ups. The idea is to trap everything in the D, but sometimes, slip-ups happen. If we miss some chances, we create scoring opportunities too. If such mistakes happen, we work on them and try to focus on the rest of the match," he said.
Against South Africa, Mandeep and Akashdeep Singh got a lot of free zone, and both players consistently kept the opposition under pressure from their runs in the flanks. Belgium are unlikely to offer that ease to India, and Mandeep suggests a wait-and-watch approach before launching attacks.
"We will always get space. The difference will be that we have to think through our moves. In the first quarter, we will have to judge where are we getting the gaps from, and of course, during the break, the coach will also tell us the areas to exploit. We will mount our charge in the next quarter accordingly."
The Jalandhar-based player also backed Akashdeep in his new role as an aggressive linkman " or a withdrawn forward, if you will " and said their mutual understanding on the turf will allow more balls in the attacking area.
"As per the new role, Akashdeep is playing as an attacking midfielder and I am an attacking forward. I think we are still a good combination and we can understand each others' eye contact really well. He can see where the gaps are and feed me the ball accordingly. He does that give-and-go thing really well," Mandeep added.
Speed and agility have been India's strengths in recent years, and the same will be put to test should Belgium crank up pace like the Argentina-Spain game on Thursday. The teams shared five goals in the breathless first quarter, and the match ended 4-3 in Argentina's favour. Mandeep said India are fit enough to meet such challenges.
"I am sure we will be able to sustain that kind of pace because our fitness is really strong. If we maintain our structure, we will be in a position to play our best hockey. Belgium have a very strong defence and attack, but we believe that all 16 teams are good, that's why they are in the World Cup. We are concentrating on playing to our potential. If we do that, we will win."