The returns from the opening set of Pro League games in South Africa were bit of a mixed bag for the Indian men’s team. The team carried the swagger of being Olympic bronze medallist and turned in a clinical 5-0 win over France in their opening game – convincing wins against hosts South Africa were perhaps on expected lines but it is the 2-5 defeat in the second leg tie against France that brought to the fore their inability to maintain the same intensity across all four quarters. Hopefully, the first four games would have made Indian realize that playing awesome hockey in a few quarters is not enough – one quarter is all opposition need to turn the tables on you in fast-paced modern hockey.
Playing consistent hockey across quarters should be their focus area when the world number 5 side take on 8th ranked Spain at Bhubaneshwar. Spain – coached by illustrious Argentinian coach Max Caldas – will look to make their Pro League campaign more competitive after a disappointing start – they were whipped 1-6 in the first leg by England but they fought hard to hold the same opponents 2-2 in normal time before a David Goodfield final-minute goal poured cold water on their aspirations of stretching the contest into a shootout and carve out a win.
Max Caldas has taken charge of Spainish side after the Tokyo Olympics replacing Frechman Fred Soyez, who had a seven-year stint with Spain. The Redsticks are rebuilding post-Olympics and are without a bevy of experienced campaigners such as goalkeeper Quico Cortes, Tokyo Olympics captain Miquel Dallas, Roc Oliva and the forward duo of David Alegre and Pau Quemada. Interestingly, Spain features only three members of the Olympic squad – defender Ricardo Sánchez, midfielder Álvaro Iglesias and forward Enrique González. Spain would count on skipper Marc Miralles, Ignacio Rodriguez and Pau Cunill – one of the finds of 2021 Junior World Cup – to provide them penalty corner firewpower.
India hold a psyschological advantage over Spain – they have beaten them thrice in their last four meetings and drawing once but all these count for nothing when both teams sqaure up on Saturday – it takes one bad day in office to reverse the losing trend and Spain would know that well enough.
As usual, India will be banking on Harmanpreet Singh for short corner goals even as the deep defence comprising goalkeeper Sreejesh and the likes of Harmanpreet, Jarmanpreet, Varun, and Dipsan would look to blunt the Spanish raids. Skipper Manpreet Singh alongside Hardik Singh, Shamsher King, Nilakanta Sharma and Vivek Sagar Prasad will strive to hold sway over the midfield. Experienced duo of Akashdeep Singh and Lalit Kumar Upadhay will shoulder the responsbility of creating as well as scoring goals and it remains to be seen whether debutant Sukhjeet Singh alongside two other young turks – Shilanand Lakra and Abhishek fire on all cylinders.
Coach Graham Reid would hope that scoring early will set India up but Spain under a shrewd coach in Max Caldas – a man who guided the Dutch women to Olympic gold in 2012 and World Cup glory in 2014 – will surely have their plans ready for India. An intriguing tussle cannot be ruled out over the weekend.