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Paris trip a game of qualifiers

After failing at Asian Games, India looking to make most of final chance to qualify for 2024 Olympics

Paris trip a game of qualifiers

Captain Savita Punia led India to the Tokyo high. Since then, they have only strayed from their path. PTI

Tribune News Service

Indervir Grewal

Chandigarh, January 12

India’s astonishing fourth-place finish at the Tokyo Olympics was the pinnacle for women’s hockey in the country. It instantly elevated the team’s status in world hockey — from also-rans India were upgraded to medal contenders in the following tournaments.

They got a taste of what it was like being respected, and even feared, by their opponents. But the tag of Olympics semifinalists also brought along new challenges. They had to bear the burden of heightened expectations. India also could not fly under the radar any longer, just as they did at the 2018 Asian Games and the Tokyo Olympics.

The Tokyo finish was achieved mainly with grit and some luck, but it presented the team an opportunity to build a lasting legacy. Since then, though, the team has shown neither the ability nor the consistency needed to stay in the top bracket.

They followed their Olympics performance with third-place finishes in the 2022 Pro League and Commonwealth Games, but were knocked out in the ‘pre-quarters’ of the World Cup. They went to the Hangzhou Asian Games as the highest-ranked side. Having come agonisingly close to winning the title in 2018, India also had the belief to go one step further this time and seal the Paris Olympics berth. But the 0-4 semifinal loss to China came as a big jolt — the defeat ended their title aspirations, and can still have greater repercussions.

So, less than three years after seeing an unprecedented high — of featuring in back-to-back Olympics after three decades of absence — the team is in danger of slipping to a familiar low by failing to qualify for the Paris Games.

Tricky path to Paris

Losing the 2018 Asian Games final did not cost India as they eventually qualified for Tokyo after overcoming lower-ranked USA — though by the skin of their teeth — in a double-leg tie in Bhubaneswar. This time, though, the path to Paris will be trickier, with top teams such as Germany and New Zealand, and familiar foe Japan in their way.

World No. 6 India enter the Olympics qualifying tournament, which starts tomorrow in Ranchi, as the second-highest-ranked side, but rankings count for little in high-pressure events.

With eight teams divided into two groups, the top-two from each pool will reach the semifinals, but only the top three finishers will qualify for the Olympics.

India’s biggest challenge in their pool will be New Zealand, who belie their No. 9 ranking. The Kiwis are known for their resilience and can never be discounted in big tournaments.

Despite their preparations for the Tokyo Olympics being disrupted by pandemic-related restrictions and a controversy about the team environment that led to a change in the coaching staff, New Zealand still reached the quarterfinals. They lost the CWG bronze to India after a shootout defeat, but bounced back by beating Janneke Schopman’s team on their way to a fifth-place finish at the World Cup.

Coached by former men’s team captain Phil Burrows, New Zealand are a triple threat — they are tough to break, can dominate possession and have one of the best strikers in women’s hockey, Olivia Merry. “We play hockey to be in these big moments, so it’s a challenge but also a really exciting opportunity,” Merry said.

History beckons

India open their campaign against USA tomorrow. Despite being a lowly 15th in the rankings, USA have a history of troubling India. The two teams played out a 1-1 draw in the 2018 World Cup and their thrilling Tokyo Games qualifying tie in 2019 ended 6-5 in India’s favour.

A side fettered by funding issues, USA were unlucky to miss the 2022 World Cup. But, with an eye on the 2028 LA Games, USA are rising again — they finished second at last year’s Pan American Games after losing 1-2 to powerhouse Argentina. They have also gained valuable exposure by regularly playing against top teams in the Pro League.

India’s easiest match in the pool, on paper, will be against Italy. They finished ninth at the 2018 World Cup riding on their solid defence. Though Italy have since slipped to world No. 19, they can still frustrate India.

To even get through their pool, India will need to be at their best — defending solidly, attacking at pace and finishing their chances, especially from penalty corners. The team’s drag-flickers recently got some help from Olympics medallist Rupinder Pal Singh. India cannot afford to let their intensity level drop at crucial moments, which has led to their recent decline.

Job half-done

Even if they reach the last-4 stage, India’s job will be half-done. The other pool includes world No. 5 Germany, Japan and a fast-rising Chile, who qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 2022 and finished third in the Pan American Games.

Germany, who were fourth at the previous World Cup and third at the European championships, will be the team to beat. A possession-craving side, Germany like to attack in numbers and can unlock any defence with their fast and intricate passing. They also have a dangerous drag-flicking battery. In their most recent meeting, Germany beat India 3-1 in a five-nation tournament, where the Savita Punia-led side lost three of their four games.

Japan and India have had a charged rivalry in recent times. Japan stunned India 2-1 in the final of the 2018 Asian Games but have lost their surprise factor since then. India won their last three games against Japan, including a 2-1 win in the Asian Games bronze-medal match and a 4-0 win in the Asian Champions Trophy final.

The ACT title win in Ranchi was a confidence boost for India, who will be desperate to prove that their Tokyo run was not a one-off success.

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