India face top-ranked Argentina in the semi-final of the World League Final in Bhubaneswar on Friday, after the latter registered their first win of the tournament on Thursday, beating England 3-2.
India, despite being ranked sixth, might hold a slight edge against the Olympic champions and here's why.
Calmness in possession and one-on-one defending were highlights of India's performance against Belgium, which coach Sjoerd Marijne pointed out after the quarter-final. "Against Germany, we had more circle entries, and almost the same shots and more PCs. If you don't score, then things look bad. We knew we could be better. We scored from two of the four PCs (against Belgium)."
Two of Belgium's three goals came from penalty corners, an area India need to improve on against Argentina. "The defence was better than the last game, but it was still a mistake to concede so many penalty corners. We should have been more compact in the defensive zone. Now we have time and we need to improve that," said defender Birendra Lakra.
Rupinder Pal Singh's improved form since the first game gives India a slight upper hand in the drag-flick department, considering Argentina's Gonzalo Peillat is now scoreless in two matches. Harmanpreet Singh, Lakra, Amit Rohidas and Dipsan Tirkey are all capable of taking drag-flicks so there's no shortage of options.
Argentina couldn't win a single penalty-corner against England, and India must take a leaf out of the English book by trying to cut off the supply to the forward line. They could be helped by two factors -- Argentina have one less day to recover for their semi-final, and their star striker Agustin Mazzilli appeared to injure his shoulder in the fourth quarter and could be a doubt.
While both teams have had a number of newcomers since the 2016 Olympics, Argentina have faced the bigger exodus of players since Rio, where their only defeat also came against India. That pool encounter was the last competitive meeting between these teams -- India beat Argentina 2-0 in a warm-up game in Bhubaneshwar, but as Marijne explained, that match took place "after Argentina had traveled for three days."
Three of the Argentina players here -- defender Agustin Bugallo, midfielder Santiago Tarazona and striker Maico Casella -- were part of the junior team at the 2016 World Cup in Lucknow, but have had bit parts to play in HWL. This has resulted in Argentina showing an uncharacteristically porous defence in the pool stages, as their eight goals conceded were exceeded only by the Netherlands among the eight teams. The only match that they seemed to have good control at the back was the quarter-final, but they would need to be at their best to keep India at bay, who made a solid Belgium backline sweat with their pace and control on counterattacks.
What India should be wary of, however, is the individual skill Argentina have at their disposal, something that was on full display during their second goal against England scored by captain Matias Paredes.
Momentum with India
Following India's win against Belgium, Marijne sounded more confident about the hosts' progress in the competition. "The tournament is not finished yet. Everybody has a good feeling, but we want to have more. We want to see how the players perform in the semis, and maybe further," he said. "They know how they did it. I have confidence they can do it again."
Argentina's Lucas Vila, who scored and set up a goal each on his 200th appearance, spoke of how their team turned around non-qualification for the 2008 Olympics into a gold for 2016, calling it "the best moment of our history."
And who could win Friday's semi-final according to the Argentine?
"The one who defends better is going to win."