Fairly well-placed after eight games, the Indian men's hockey team would look to annex the top position in the standings when they take on England in a double-leg FIH Pro League 2021-22 tie, starting in Bhubaneswar on Saturday. (More Hockey News)
The second match of the tie will be played on Sunday. Tokyo Olympic bronze medallists India have so far played eight matches this season and are placed second in the standings, behind Germany (17 points), with 16 points.
The Indian team defeated South Africa 10-2, 10-2 before winning a game and losing one against France (5-0, 2-5) and Spain (5-4, 3-5). Recently against Argentina, the Indians lost 2-2 (1-3 in shoot-out) before registering a thrilling 4-3 win in the second match.
Going into tie against England, defence remains a major concern for the Indians as the backline wilted under pressure in every match. Conceding soft goals has been India's bane and vice-captain Harmanpreet Singh had no qualms in admitting that, saying the defenders need to improve their decision-making going forward.
“Our main focus is to make the team stronger match by match. We are learning a lot about our weakness and strengths. We need to improve our finishing, create more penalty corners. The decision-making needs to improve. The defenders need to avoid conceding penalty corners and tackle outside the circle,” he said during a virtual pre-match press conference.
On the contrary, India's forwardline has been impressive, scoring as many as 42 goals in the eight games. Mandeep Singh, in particular, has been at his best inside the opposition circle, scoring some important goals, including the last-minute match-winner against Argentina in their previous game.
Captain of the Olympic bronze-medal winning side, Manpreet Singh is the backbone of India's midfield alongside Hardik Singh, Vivek Sagar Prasad, Nilkanta Sharma and Sumit. The presence of four world-class drag-flicking options -- Harmanpreet, skipper Amit Rohidas, Varun Kumar and young Jugraj Singh -- hand India a clear edge over their opponents.
Jugraj has been a revelation since making his senior team debut, striking a brace in the second game against Argentina before providing the assist to Mandeep for the winner.
“He (Jugraj) is playing really well. He is a powerful, world-class drag-flicker, it is a big benefit for the team. He is availing his chances. The presence of so many drag-flickers makes it difficult for opponents to judge," Rohidas said.
In their last meeting, India defeated England 3-1 in the quarterfinals of the Tokyo Olympics last year. On paper and in world rankings too, India hold an edge over England. While the Indians are ranked fourth, the Englishmen occupy the seventh spot.
England, on the other hand, are placed seventh in the Pro League standings with six points from two wins and as many defeats. England started their Pro League campaign on a positive note beating Spain 6-1 and 3-2 before losing 1-3 and 0-2 to Argentina.
England are on a rebuilding phase under new captain Tom Sorsby and head coach Zak Jones, and are looking at the Pro League matches to gain valuable experience ahead of the Birmingham Commonwealth Games.
“It (Pro League) is really important... We have new players and we want to gain some experience. These games are vital in building the momentum as much as possible going into CWG,” Jones said.