Controlling emotions, minding defensive errors key for India against familiar rivals Belgium


Putting decades of heartbreak behind, India have made the men’s hockey semi-finals for the first time since 1972. They will be keen to carry on with their winning momentum — they have four wins on the trot since suffering their heaviest defeat in Olympic history against Australia — but they run next into the reigning world champions Belgium, who had also knocked them out in the quarter-finals in Rio back in 2016.

There is an insurance in the shape of a bronze medal match for the team that loses, but eight-time champions India will be eager to progress to their first final in 41 years.

Key storylines

The risk for India is that they might be running high on emotion. Understandably, coach Graham Reid is understood to have cautioned them against precisely that in the team huddle immediately after their quarter-final win over Great Britain. In terms of their game play, India have progressively improved in each game through the tournament. Field goals have come with regularity in their last two matches, with Dilpreet Singh, Gurjant Singh and Hardik Singh all scoring from open play in the quarter-final.

Belgium have purred along just the way you would expect from a top two nation. They only dropped points in their inconsequential group game against Great Britain, and showed fight in beating Spain 3-1 in their quarter-final after trailing at half-time. It is a team that has learnt the art of peaking at the right time in big tournaments.

Where the match will be won

This could well boil down to which team is able to create and convert more penalty corner (PC) opportunities. Both sides have good options in that department, and interestingly all the knockout matches are being played at the north pitch of the Oi stadium, where teams have sometimes failed to halt injections cleanly. Defensive errors would be costly, because if you would back teams to overcome the odd bump on the outfield and still convert most of their PCs, Belgium and India would feature among your top three.

There is also a great deal of familiarity between these sides — since that Rio match, they have had a few tours and meetings in big events on a regular basis. India won by shootout at the 2017 World League Final, they drew at both the Champions Trophy and the World Cup in 2018, and both sides won a match apiece on successive days during the Pro League last year.

Players to watch

In their quarter-final, PR Sreejesh was back at his best. Not only was he superb at keeping the opponents at bay from open play, his anticipation and footwork when defending PCs was ridiculously good. If he maintains his form, he could be India’s key to heightening the pressure on the Belgians.

For Belgium, it could boil down to how good Loick Luypaert is on the day. A deep defender, he is also their biggest PC converter, with additional options in striker Tom Boon and defender Alexander Hendrickx.

Numbers game

This will be India’s sixth meeting at the Olympics with Belgium. Though India lead the head-to-head 3-2, their last win came on grass in Mexico City, when they won a group stages match 2-1 in 1968.

Belgium were India’s second opponent at the Olympics, during their victorious campaign in Antwerp back in 1928. Feroze Khan scored five goals as India ran out 9-0 winners.

Belgium have been the top goalscorers in the group stages in Tokyo, with 26 goals scored from five matches. They beat South Africa 9-4, before routing Canada 9-1 in their next match.

India’s last semi-final was at the 1972 Munich Games, where they lost 0-2 to Pakistan. The 1980 Moscow Olympics were played in a round-robin format, followed by classification. India finished second behind Spain, enabling them to play for gold. That remains their last final.

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