Focus key as India look to top group by beating Canada

A win against Canada will most likely ensure India's direct qualification to the quarterfinals. Charles McQuillan/Getty Images for FIH

A couple of days ago, towards the end of the team India training session, coach Harendra Singh blew his whistle at a group of players practising defensive drills at one corner of the field, some 30 yards from him. On hearing the piercing sound, the players dropped what they were doing and charged towards their coach. The slowest to react and the last to reach Harendra had to drop and complete 20 push-ups while the rest of the teammates stood laughing beside a grinning Harendra.

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"I want my players to be aware. Sometimes you get so caught up in your drills that you aren't noticing opportunities or dangers around you," Harendra would explain later. "Every training session I do this a few times. Your mind might be secure but I need players to be on alert all the time," he said.

It's that sort of awareness that Harendra would expect of his players in their final league match against Canada. India are currently top of the group, ahead of Belgium on goal difference. If, as expected, they beat Canada -- who at World number 11 are ranked six places below India -- they will likely stay top and go straight to the quarterfinals.

India go into the Canada game off a confidence-boosting 2-2 draw against Belgium. However, they are unlikely to be carrying any psychological momentum from the match in which they came back to hold the Olympic silver medallists following a torrid opening half. That's because India will have had five days between those two matches.

Coach Harendra admits that it's difficult to keep his side focused over that gap. That's among the reasons why he employs his innovative drills. "It's a long break so we do what we can to keep them focused," he says.

Captain Manpreet Singh agrees. "We keep watching matches the other teams are playing in those days and we keep waiting for our chance to get our own game, you feel a bit restless," he says.

Restlessness is understandable but it's complacency that the team would do best to avoid. They received a handy reminder of the pitfalls of just such behaviour on Thursday, when Olympic champions Argentina were stunned by France, the lowest ranked side in the tournament.

But India insist they won't be caught off guard. "A few of our boys were watching the highlights of the (Argentina-France) game. They've learned a few things from it too," says India's assistant coach Chris Ciriello.

One of the things they would have learned is that Canada will have nothing to lose. "India seem like they are fitter and faster than the last time we played them. India are favourites at home. We don't have the pressure on us. For us this is an exciting opportunity simply to be playing in front of 15000 people," says Canada captain Scott Tupper.

But Tupper is hoping the pressure gets to the Indians. He was a part of the team that held India 2-2 at the Rio Olympics, scoring both of Canada's goals from penalty corners. "If we keep the score close and don't let the match get away we could get a good result," he says.

Ciriello knows it too. While India are expected to win, a draw coupled with a Belgian win against South Africa earlier on Saturday would topple India from the top of the table, forcing the side to go through a crossover round. "If you are not switched on, you don't go to the top of the pool," he says.

Which is why coach Harendra is setting hard targets for his team. "It doesn't matter what happens in the game between Belgium and South Africa. We want to compete well irrespective of that result. We want to finish on top of the group and we want to go through without conceding a goal against Canada," says Harendra.