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2020 Oly Qualifier
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India cannot take its place in final for granted (6/3/2019)
--K. Arumugam
At World No. 5, India tower over the rest of the field at the FIH Series Finals in Bhubaneswar, starting on Thursday. Placed in Pool A, the hosts have Poland (ranked 21), Russia (23) and Uzbekistan (55) for company. Pool B comprises South Africa, no strangers to the Kalinga Stadium, at No. 16, Japan (No. 18), USA (26) and Mexico (39). One things sure for India is that it cannot take its place in the final for granted if the recent past history is any indication.

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The eight-nation event serves as a qualifier for the Olympic qualifiers later this year. But if India assume that finishing among the top two to secure a place in the qualifiers means just turning up on the pitch, they do so at their own peril.

Malaysia, hosts of the first FIH Series Finals, huffed and puffed before making the final to secure a spot in the qualifiers but not after crashing to a humiliating 2-4 defeat to rank outsiders Italy in the league match and eking out a 4-4 draw against China.

A slip-up in the pool, potentially against Poland who historically have been no pushovers, will compel India to play the cross-overs, where realistically they would play the USA who will have their adrenaline pumping in a bid to make a quantum leap on a global stage.

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Even if India top Pool A, their opponents in the semifinals are most likely to be either Japan or South Africa. The Japanese have qualified automatically for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as hosts but made it a point of doing so by merit with a sensational Asian Games gold medal victory in Jakarta last year.

South Africa, African champions seven times in a row, are competitive on the global stage even if their 16th and last place at the World Cup may not quite support that claim.

A 0-5 defeat against the hosts in the World Cup may be the right motivation, in a queer sort of way, for South Africa to pull off something special should the teams meet again.

Manpreet Singh (below), the ebullient midfielder leads an Indian side which enjoys the solidity of veteran goalkeeper P.R. Sreejesh, sound defender Surender Kumar and the combative Harmanpreet Singh whose drag-flicking prowess makes him a player to fear.

India, who achieved a creditable sixth spot at a memorable World Cup in December last year, are not short of firepower up front with Mandeep Singh, Akashdeep Singh and Ramandeep Singh, returning from a long injury lay-off, likely scourges of goalkeepers in the tournament that concludes on June 15.

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Graham Reid, who took over as head coach in April, hopes that the tour of Australia, his country, would have helped in the eventual aim to achieve more circle entries, sharpen finishing and ward off tough tackling and stifling marking.

His team, suffered two heavy defeats (0-4 and 2-5) Down Under but apart from lessons learned, the former Kookaburras star midfielder/defender was reportedly upbeat with the return of Ramandeep and the choice of three drag-flickers in the side – Varun Kumar and Amit Rohidas complementing Harmanpreet.

On Thursday, India open against Russia who beat higher ranked Scotland in Lousada, Portugal, to book a ticket to Bhubaneswar.

The Russians have a clutch of talented players including Laroslav Loginov, Pavel Golubev and the young Marat Khairullin, a forward with the scoring touch.

Poland come next on Friday in a key clash. The Poles ran up 32 goals with reply in the FIH Series Open at home in Gniezno where the eastern Europeans revealed a solid defence and sharp-shooting ability in which Dominik Kotulski and penalty corner specialist Pawel Bratkowski sparkled.

Uzbekistan, the lowest-ranked team, may serve as cannon-fodder for India backed by vociferous thousands in the stands, but the Central Asians, who impressed in the FIH Series Open in Lahore, Pakistan, would do well to raise their stocks a notch a two with the experience in the cauldron.

In Pool B, South Africa field familiar stalwarts such as captain Austin Smith, Tim Drummond, Jethro Eustice and goalkeeper Rassie Pieterse. Ngobile Ntuli and Ryan Julius boost the African champions with a touch of youth.

Japan coached by Dutchman Siegfried Aikman (middle photo) are a regimented unit with probably enduring the least pressure after qualifying as hosts. But Tokyo looms and Japan know that they cannot take their foot off the pedal. They found incredible motivation to fight back from a 2-5 deficit to draw 6-6 with Malaysia and win on in a shootout to claim the Asian Games gold and a place in the final here is surely the benchmark for satisfaction for Aikman’s super-fit team.

Should Japan finish among the top two, the third placed team will not automatically qualify for the Olympic qualifiers. The world rankings after the completion of all continental championships will reveal whether the third-place finishers secure a spot in the seven play-offs that constitute the qualifiers.

USA and Mexico emerge from the Americas, labouring in the shadow of big boys Argentina (playing in the FIH Pro League) and Canada (who won in Kuala Lumpur beating Malaysia in the FIH Series Open finals).

They drew 5-5 against each other but USA secured top spot on goal difference in Salamanca, Mexico. The US, with two of its players playing club hockey in Europe, are a speedy attacking team with steady build-ups, coached by Dutchman Rutger Wiese.

Mexico have three players with more than 100 caps and head coach Pol Moreno will be blooding four. The great big bonus for the Central Americans would be playing in the spiritual home of the sport even as they nurture aspirations to make the top echelons of the sport in the Americas now occupied by Argentina, Canada, USA and Chile.

Four continental champions will qualify directly (Japan, Asian Games champions have freed up a spot) to join the hosts in Tokyo.

A third FIH Series Finals will be held in Le Touquet, France, later this month to produce two more qualifiers (six in all) who will join the top four of the FIH Pro League plus four more from the world rankings of teams not qualified from any other route in seven head-to-head double-leg clashes to complete the field at next year’s Olympics.

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