Why India will struggle against Belgium

Hockey India

When India take on Belgium in the quarterfinals of the Hockey World League Final in Bhubaneswar on Wednesday, it will be an uphill task for them to advance to the last four. Here's why:

Previous record

In this clash, third-ranked Belgium will start as favourites against the fifth-ranked hosts, considering the current form of both teams and their recent head-to-head record.

Belgium have always beaten India at the World League Final, including in the semi-finals of the last edition, in Raipur in 2015. Belgium also won the clash in the quarter-finals of last year's Rio Olympics, where India led 1-0 at half-time but went on to lose 3-1.

A glimmer of hope for India is that they beat Belgium in their only previous meeting at an International Hockey Federation (FIH) event in Bhubaneswar, overturning a 2-0 deficit to win 4-2 in the Champions Trophy quarterfinals in 2014.

Consistency, or lack thereof

A common theme for the Indian team in their three pool matches - they drew one and lost two - has been the lack of consistency, something coach Sjoerd Marijne and his players have acknowledged has been the case, especially since a high-octane 1-1 draw in the tournament opener against Australia.

"I had said before this tournament that what will be interesting is how we play against the top five nations," Marijne, who took over as coach only in September, said after the 2-0 defeat to Germany on Monday. "What we saw against Australia, or in the second half against England, and the second half today, that's what we need to be doing."

India will need to be compact in defence and not allow Belgium too many chances at goal in the first half, something they were guilty of doing against England and Germany. "There were lots of unforced errors (against Germany) and we need to ensure we don't repeat them. The more we play on the counter-attack, the better we are as an attacking threat," said captain Manpreet Singh, whose own performance has dipped since his role in initiating everything significant from India against Australia.

A lack of consistency from India also leads to an element of unpredictability, which Belgium are wary of. "India is always a dangerous team -- it's a team that can be really good on a good day and can be dangerous on any day. Most dangerous sides look like they are playing bad and that's when they pounce. That's part of their strong suit," said Belgian defender Arthur van Doren, who was part of the team that lost to India in 2014.

"European sides are a bit more structured in how they go about their business. It's a bit more from player to player and a bit more keeping it compact and keeping it under control, whereas Indian hockey is more like Australian -- it is up and down, up and down, like running a race, and based purely on skill."

"And you can see Indians have crazy skills and also in the attacking third, they will go past two or three players, whereas European sides are more, if you count the numbers, pass the ball around and make them move, then make it more controlled. Indians -- they see one thing, they want a goal, and that's where they want to go."

Poor penalty-corner conversion

Belgium will present one of the best defences in this tournament, but India have also not hit full-steam in their penalty-corners.

With as many as five or six players capable of taking PCs, it has been mostly down to Rupinder Pal Singh and Harmanpreet Singh, with the former returning to a major tournament after a long layoff. Rupinder told ESPN over the weekend that there's a possibility more players will take up drag-flicking responsibilities as the tournament goes on, and that might see Birendra Lakra, Varun Kumar, Dipsan Tirkey and Amit Rohidas taking PCs in the knockouts.

The inability to breach the German defence was a source of concern for Marijne, who had said then, "The running from Germany was really good. They didn't allow us angles we wanted to play."

Chikte in goal

A decision made before the tournament was that goalkeepers Akash Chikte and Suraj Karkera will alternate in every game, something India, to an extent, have stuck to. Although Chikte has started in every match, and been replaced at half-time by the younger and relatively less-experienced Karkera (Chikte has 46 caps to Karkera's 15), the stats suggest Karkera has performed better.

Of the six goals India have conceded in this tournament, only one has come with Karkera in goal. Chikte has conceded early in the last two matches, putting India on the backfoot, while Karkera kept India in the Australia match with a half-stop off a penalty corner, before Lakra hooked the ball just off the goal-line in response to keep the score at 1-1.

India should still persist with both 'keepers, but there is no harm in starting with Karkera, for a change. If India are still in the game at half-time, and Karkera puts in an assured display, they could consider letting him have a full game instead of Chikte.