Two weeks and twenty four league matches of the 2018 Hockey World Cup are done, and we're all set for the knockout phase. From France's stunning upset of Argentina to Pakistan's chaotic run, here are the highlights of the tournament so far.
Crossover conundrum and same old Pakistan
This is the first time the tournament features the crossover format. Previous editions featured two groups of six or seven, with the top four qualifying for the semis. The new format threw up some strange scenarios - like Pakistan going through despite two losses and a draw, and Spain getting knocked out despite losing only once and drawing twice in the group stages.
Pakistan don't have the greatest memories of Bhubaneswar. There was, for instance, an unseemly incident with the crowd at the Kalinga Stadium after their victory over India at the 2014 Champions Trophy. Things were expected to be different at this World Cup. Pakistan Manager Hassan Sardar talked up his affection for all things Indian and said his players would show their appreciation for the crowd with their performances. They even handed out tickets for their matches at a local mosque. The charm offensive ended poorly though. One of their players was suspended and an assistant coach was reprimanded after a tiff with a security guard before their final pool game. The suspension was lifted in time, but they still lost 5-1 against Netherlands. Pakistan certainly have something to prove in the crossovers.
A surprise quarterfinalist
There's going to be a World Cup first on Monday: Either France or China (the two lowest ranked teams in the tournament) will make the quarterfinal for the first time in their history. Notwithstanding the 11-0 loss against Australia in their last game, China threw up a couple of surprises in the tournament, drawing matches against higher-ranked England and Ireland. What they lacked in individual talent, they made up in hard work. "Our philosophy is to keep pressing. Never give up on the ball and always take that extra step," coach Kim Sang Ryul said after China's draw with England.
France produced the upset of the tournament, putting five past Olympic champions Argentina. They haven't looked for a moment like they were the lowest ranked side in the tournament. They had their chances in the 2-1 loss to New Zealand and even had the opportunity (which they missed) to seal victory in the game against Spain.
With 16 teams and four pools, in addition to only two matches per day instead of three due to telecast restrictions meant the league phase of this World Cup is also the longest so far. Depending on the pools they were in, some teams had long gaps between games. Both India and Canada for instance, had five days of rest before their final league game. The two teams used that time to visit Puri beach, with the Canadian team spending two days in the beach town. Other teams with extended breaks found creative ways to spend their time -- Belgium played cards, New Zealand did quizzes and France worked their way through weighty tomes. On the table of midfielder John Baptiste Forgues was "L'age de la connaissance (the age of knowledge)" by French Neuroscientist Idriss Aberkane.
The World Cup starts now (or in a little bit)
Australia have the best goal difference (15) going into the knockouts, thanks largely to their 11-0 thrashing of China. The surprise no. 2 in this category though are India with a GD of 9 (scored 12, conceded 3). India have indeed been a revelation in this tournament, surprising many teams with their pace, fitness, tactical awareness and ruthlessness. However, coach Harendra Singh knows the real challenge lies ahead. "We will get a chance to see how good we actually are in the quarterfinals. The tournament really begins for us now," he said after India's final group game.
India though have another long break before their next game. They played their last league game on Saturday and will have to wait until Thursday for their quarterfinal. Their opponent will be the winner of the match between Canada and Netherlands, the latter finishing second in Group D due to their loss against Germany. The defeat though might have worked in favour of the Dutch. "We are a side that doesn't like to lose the momentum between matches. The fact that we had such long breaks between our league matches worked against us," said Dutch coach Max Caldas, after his side walloped Pakistan 5-1 on Sunday. "Now we have a match against Canada on Tuesday and if we get past that we have the quarterfinal two days later. That is what we want," Caldas said.