The Indian men’s hockey team would have the psychological advantage against Argentina if their recent international meet-ups are anything to go by. The Graham-Reid coached Indians had sailed past the South Americans 3-1 at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics and also did not have to break much sweat in the last edition of the Pro League when they drew the second leg 2-2 before going on to win the shootout 3-2 and coasted to a 3-0 win in the first leg in Buenos Aires.
The hosts would have to instil more discipline in their defence that showed up gaping holes against Spain. PR Sreejesh going by his own lofty goalkeeping standards, was a tad disappointing – the way he let Spain captain Marc Miralles’s drag-flick go between his legs in the first leg tie against Spain is something you don’t associate with Sreejesh – young Surak Karkera also need to up his game but to be fair to both goalkeepers, our fullbacks also did not offer them adequate support. The likes of Surender Kumar, Varun Kumar, Jugraj Singh, Jamrmanpreet Singh and Harmanpreet Singh should refrain from ball-watching and strive to close the lines so that Sreejesh and Karkera are provided adequate cushion. India appeared to miss the presence of ‘rested’ Olympian Amit Rohidas, who has built a reputation as an effective PC first-rusher – India leaked 7 short corner goals in the two games against Spain. Clearly, we need to find adequate PC first-rusher back-ups.
Harmanpreet has time and again comes to the team’s rescue as far as PC conversions are concerned – being Pro League top goal-scorer is a testimony to his rich vein of form. Varun Kumar, who plays a second fiddle to Harmanpreet in PC routines, also underlined his utility with a cruical strike on his 100th international appearance against Spain, which augurs well for India. It gives Indian camp a great degree of assurance that they can profit from PCs even if Harmanpreet is in the dugout as part of the rolling substiution exercise.
Skipper Manpreet Singh looked below his best against Spain and it was not probably felt much because the likes of Hardik Singh, Shamsher Singh, Nilakanta Sharma and Jaskaran Singh held firm in the midfield. The Indian forwardline would expect experienced duo Lalit Kumar Upadhay to shoulder more responsiblity against Argentina. Mandeep Singh, who missed the South Africe leg of the Pro League, has been making an impact upfront. Shilanand Lakra has been the in-form striker for India – his ability to hustle the opposition with sudden burst of pace has stood India in good stead. The return of Dilpreet Singh and comeback lad Gurjant Singh will add more teeth to the attack. Newbies Abhishek and Sukhjeet Singh have impressed all and sundry and should serve the national team for a long time to come.
Argentina coached by Mario Ronconi (a former goalkeeper), kickstarted their Pro League campaign with a stunning 2-1 win over Olympic champions Belgium in Buenos Aires, but were brought down to earth with a 0-2 defeat in the second leg. The South Americans subsequently hit the groove against England, winning both legs by 2-0 and 3-1 win margins. Interestingly, Ronconi named three captains after the Olympics – Maico Casella, Agustin Mazzilli and Matias Rey. Matias Rey captained Argentina against Belgium, while Maico Casella captained Los Leonas against England.
Argentina are going through a rebuilding stage after three stalwarts – goalkeeper Juan Manuel Vivaldi, defender Pedro Ibarra and midfielder Juan Martín López retired after the Tokyo Olympics. The Los Leonas seems to have found a promising goalkeeping replacement for Vivaldi in Tomas Santiago, who effected some magnifcient saves against Belgium as well as against England. Santiago would need stout support from Nicolás Cicileo, Tarazona Santiago, and Jose Tolini who would be expected to perform the drag-flicking duties.
The world number six side would rely heavily on playmaker and captain Maico Casella – one of the nine members of the Tokyo Olympics squad. Casella is a pivot around which their midfield revolves – he is strong in feeding the forwardline as well as defending short corners. He scored the match-winner against Belgium in the dying moments in the first leg. The Los Leonas have the experieced combo of Agustin Mazzilli and Matias Rey, who are known to frustrate the opposition with their slick bout of passing play.
Argentina would look for firepower upfront from Lucas Martinez, Nicholas Keenan and Martin Ferriero – India must be wary about Ferriero, who has the ability to torment any defence with his exquisite 3D skills.