India out to prove attacking mettle against resolute Belgium

Charles McQuillan/Getty Images for FIH

It has been three days since India got their first game of the Hockey World Cup out of the way. A 5-0 win against South Africa would have shook any cobwebs lose and soothed any pre-tournament nerves.

With their second match against Belgium, their tournament now begins in earnest. South Africa, a team of valiant journeymen, were a side limited by their skill which allowed India to display all of theirs. Belgium, ranked No.3 in the world, will be a different beast.

"We have a trademark of attacking hockey over the last few months. We won't compromise on that," coach Harendra Singh says. South Africa defended deep but were structurally lose enough to let India enter the 20-yard circle with relative regularity. That is unlikely to happen against Belgium.

The style of play that Belgium have perfected over the last few years and one that saw them win an Olympic silver in 2016 has been to maintain their defensive structure to choke out any forward movement right up at the center of the pitch itself. Then, as the opposition's frustration slowly takes over, the turnovers mount allowing them their own chances to counter.

It is a relentless approach whose effectiveness coach Harendra is well aware of. "They play vertical hockey, they don't give parallel or back pass. Our players will take chances in the midfield. When a mistake happens, our team has to defend that."

It is a style that has some limitation against a defensively minded side, as Belgium's opening match - a hard fought 2-1 win against Canada -- suggested. But against a side looking to take the initiative, as India coach Harendra suggest they will do, this is a template for success.

That's precisely what coach Shane McLeod expects will happen against India. "I don't think they were challenged to be honest," he says of India's opening match. "South Africa play a different structure than us. India just got goals and South Africa sort of allowed them to control the game. I'd imagine the game's gonna be different in that regards for both teams. It's gonna be 60 minutes of hard battle."

There's plenty at stake for both teams in what is expected to be the marquee match of Group C. The winner of the match will likely top the round robin stage and directly qualify for the quarterfinals. After the lopsided opening win against South Africa, India will have the advantage via goal difference should the match end in a draw.

That too is a possibility that shouldn't be discarded. The two sides have played each other five times this year with the last two matches ending in draws after regular time.

And while on paper this appears to be a contest that is for the Belgians to lose, even a win for the hosts on Sunday night in Bhubaneswar shouldn't be considered a massive surprise. For one, Bhubaneswar has not been a very happy hunting ground for Belgium at least when it comes to taking on India.

Form was upended the last time the two team's played at the Kalinga stadium in the quarterfinals of the Hockey World League finals. Belgium were the form team in that encounter, beating Olympic Champions Argentina, Netherlands and Spain in the group stages with a goal difference of 9. India had finished in the bottom of their pool. Yet, when the two sides met, it was India who first held on for a 3-3 draw before winning on shootouts.

Harendra credits the vocal crowd at the Kalinga stadium for aiding his side in that encounter. "Crowd is our 12th man. Many teams (opponents) can feel that pressure. We should take advantage of that," he says.

Belgium's McLeod is well aware of the challenge too. "It's not easy playing India at home. They are a very good side. They play well in front of their home crowd. The crowd is a tough one. It gets so loud that the players can't communicate with each other."

Harendra will hope for more of the same on Sunday. He is aware that it's not just the players who feed off the crowd. "If you become defensive, the crowd also goes silent. But if you keep attacking, the crowd remains energetic. To stay in the game, we have to play attacking hockey. If your shoulders drop, you lose crowd support and momentum."