Goals a touch too far

Old frailties are still apparent as the Indian team struggles to rub shoulders with the top outfits

Goals a touch too far

Amidst the ruckus that the Pakistan players created during their post-match celebrations, one thing that was almost forgotten was India’s performance in the Champions Trophy.

  Their show in that semifinal encounter pretty much summarised their performance this year: brilliant one day but ordinary another with their age-old problem of failing to close out tight matches costing them a medal.

Having arrived in Bhubaneshwar with their first Asian Games gold medal in 16 years and a rare away ‘Test’ series win over Australia, the event was considered a good year-end litmus test for the Men in Blue. While they showed their progress during their superb wins over the Netherlands and Belgium, defeats against Germany, Argentina, Pakistan and Australia emphasised the amount of work that still needs to be done.

A fourth place finish in one of the premier tournaments may seem an achievement in current times but two wins and four defeats from six matches paints a very clear picture. What is worrying was that in all those four defeats, the Indians had their chances to triumph but frittered them away much to the disappointment of fans.

During the opening two encounters, against Germany and Argentina, their problems were exposed, agonisingly by the former and ruthlessly by the latter. In both the matches, the strikers appeared clueless when left with very little space to operate.

With Germany keeping things extremely tight and Argentina defending really deep, the strikers struggled to make much of an impact. They possessed plenty of pace down the flanks but on seeing a crowded citadel, they just kept whipping meaningless balls into the danger area that was easily cut out by the opposing defence.

Despite the counter-attack ploy not working, they didn’t change their plans, the lack of alternatives when things didn’t go the intended way being a really worrisome point. In fact, it took the Indians 90 minutes to score their first goal of the tournament, finding success through a counter-attack after being met by many failures.

What was really puzzling was the lack of willingness from all the strikers to try dribbling their way even when the opportunity presented itself. Although they flourished against the Netherlands and Belgium, their tendency to get carried away by the occasion was very visible against Pakistan. Many times, they had Pakistan under the gun but their decision to go for individual glory when a simple pass could have fetched a goal is something only they can explain.

The weakness in defence, a problem coach after coach has not been able to find a permanent cure for, played a major role in them ending fourth when a potential silver was there for the taking with 90 seconds left on the clock in the semifinal. Clearly showing they had not learned the harsh lessons from the past, they played the final few minutes of the game in their own half and paid the price dearly. In their opening group game, Germany struck the winner in the final minute while they conceded the equaliser twice against Argentina within a minute of grabbing the lead.

The inabilities to safeguard lead and close out crunch matches have been India’s biggest bane and the reason why they are not able to challenge the best. Somehow the defence just collapses under the slightest hint of pressure which eventually forces creative midfielders like Sardar Singh to fall back.

“The problem with India is they keep slipping away every now and then,” former coach Terry Walsh had remarked just after guiding the team to the Asian Games gold. “Flair is good but you need solidity in midfield and defence. You have to learn how to control matches.”

That exactly is India’s problem. There’s no question that this team is one of the talented sides to take the field in recent times but the blow-hot blow-cold nature of the past still lingers.

Against Netherlands and Belgium, ranked second and fourth in the world respectively, they were simply brilliant. They pressed superbly, showed the skills to finish off some fine moves and defended with composure to pull off two stunning victories. They were able to maintain the tempo right throughout the two fast-paced encounters, countering everything the teams threw at them with some character. However, all that good work was undone in the bitter defeat against Pakistan in the semifinals.

Walsh, combining well with High Performance Director Roelant Oltmans, appeared to have papered over the cracks that were plaguing the team in the past. The team was settling in very well when differences with Hockey India led to his exit.

There are quite a few positives to take from the Champions Trophy but the negatives outweigh them marginally. At the top level, these narrow margins is what stands between victory and defeat. If India can learn from their mistakes and learn how to finish off big matches consistently, then definitely they can aspire for medals.

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