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Ahead of World Cup, India look for a final tune-up

Starting Saturday, the Indian women’s hockey team will have exactly four opportunities to fine tune their setup before commencing their journey to the World Cup, which will be held in Spain and Netherlands from July 1 to 17.

Two matches against newly-crowned Pro League champions Argentina on Saturday and Sunday and two against minnows United States on Tuesday and Wednesday are the only outings the Savita Punia-led squad will get before heading to Amstelveen for the group matches of the World Cup. These games hold significance, especially after the double drubbing India received at the hands of Belgium last weekend.

“We are working on improving our execution with regards to penalty corners. During our practice sessions, the players trained with the best mindset and worked on earning penalty corners and executing shots on goal. Hopefully, the players will improve upon executing PCs in our upcoming matches,” said India skipper Savita.

“Our preparations are going on well. We had two great training sessions (after the losses to Belgium) and everyone is focused on improving their game. We are looking forward to our matches against Argentina and looking to perform as a team and as individuals.”

Despite earning chances, India failed to capitalise against Belgium and also could not convert their penalty corner opportunities. The defence is also an area where the team needs to work on as it has been breached regularly by opposition teams. In the eight games India have played so far in the Pro League, they could not manage a clean slate in even a single game, whether it was conceding one against minnows China, four against Spain or five against Belgium.

“When the ball is in our half, we have to be more alert and have to play patiently. We have to remain calm as many a time we have seen umpires taking quick decisions and us opting for immediate referrals. We are working on it,” said Savita.

India will have to be extremely watchful against Tokyo Olympics silver medallists Argentina. It was the South American outfit that halted India’s progress at the Tokyo Olympics when the world No 3 side beat India 2-1 in the semi-finals. In the 14 matches they have played in the Pro League so far, Argentina have won an incredible 12 games. The two losses they suffered didn’t come in regulation time but in shootouts, meaning 100% no-loss record in regulation time

“The Olympic semi-final was a very close and good match. Everyone has the confidence and motivation drawing inspiration from what we did at the Olympics. We have discussed with our coach, trained accordingly and also analysed video clips in team meetings of Argentina’s game. We are ready for them,” added the India goalkeeper.

Playing four matches in five days in Rotterdam just ahead of the World Cup also provides the Indian team the chance to get acclimatised to the conditions as Amstelveen–their venue for the World Cup group matches–is barely 70km away.

Though India lost to Belgium, they received a huge boost with the return of former captain Rani Rampal, who also played her 250th international last weekend. Match practice ahead of the World Cup and the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham could prove to be handy for the experienced campaigner.

Unlike the Tokyo Games, the spotlight will be on India at the World Cup after finishing a creditable fourth at the Olympics, also raising expectations from the team. Before Tokyo India barely played tournaments due to Covid but they rose against all odds to finish fourth in Japan. This time around, they have got enough match time under their belt, playing tournaments like the Asian Champions Trophy, Asia Cup and Pro League.

“These matches will definitely help us. Because of these tournaments a lot of players got the chance to play at the highest level against good opposition, irrespective of the position and experience. Our priority was to give players opportunities in the Pro League. Thanks to the Pro League we now know how to come back if something didn’t work in the previous game. These things will definitely help us in the World Cup and the Commonwealth Games,” concluded Savita.

India are currently third in the Pro League with 22 points while Argentina have already been crowned champions with 38 points.

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