Advantage India against feisty France

Nobbs boys one win away from erasing bitter memories of Chile qualifiers: Live on TEN Sports, 8.00 pm

Having crossed five hurdles so far without a hitch, a determined India face a stern test of character and nerves as they seek to take the final step towards London Olympics.

Standing in their way are dogged France, who have nothing to lose and will be eyeing Sunday’s FIH Olympics Qualifiers final at the Major Dhyan Chand National stadium as a great opportunity to make the world take notice of their potential.

Almost everything has gone to plan for the hosts, for whom victory is a must considering what happened at the same stage four years ago in Chile, when they faltered against Great Britain to miss the Olympic bus for the first time in their history.

Right from gaining the right to host the Qualifiers that gave them the crucial home advantage to their performances so far in this tournament, India have lived up to their status as favourites.

The eight-time Olympic gold medallists breezed past minnows Singapore and Italy in ruthless fashion before scripting a convincing victory against the fellow finalists in their third league game, a contest that was expected to provide them their first real examination.

They did have a rough ride against second seeds Canada and Poland when their strikers found it difficult to penetrate inside the circle despite enjoying the bulk of possession, but found a way to wriggle out with their never-say-die approach to sign off the league phase with five straight wins.

However, all that will count for little in the winner-takes-all final clash, with a rebuilding France eager to spoil their party. Although Frederic Soyez’s men lost the league match 2-6 to India, they appear far better than that and have the potential to cause an upset despite having beaten the hosts just thrice in 38 attempts.

Since their rousing start to tournament when they upset Poland 2-1, the French have grown in confidence and showed great spirit against Canada despite tragedy striking three of its members. Christophe Genestet, the father of Martin, Tom and Hugo, passed away on Thursday back home but the trio showed wonderful character to take the field and power their side into the decider.

The French will also take a cue from Canada and Poland, who pushed India hard with their extremely tight marking. With France also employing the similar grinding-down European style, the finale promises to be a direct contest between India’s attacking force and The Blues’ hard-working defence.

While there have been a few concerns over India’s penetration when very little space was on offer in their previous two matches, the plus point was their confidence and the constant pressure they created that resulted in a lot of penalty corners.

Ace drag-flicker Sandeep Singh has been in his elements, cashing in on the strikers’ fine work with 11 goals to emerge as the tournament’s highest goal-scorer. Nothing would please him more than capturing a second appearance in the Olympics.

While the opposition would indeed test the hosts, the biggest thing Michael Nobbs’ boys need to shake off is pressure, if they feel any. Six members of the current squad were part of the Chile disaster, and salvaging the lost pride would be high on their minds.

On paper, the Indians appear far superior and only a shocking performance will see them lose their only match of the event at the most inopportune time. The stage has been set perfectly for Nobbs’ men to deliver the last punch.

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