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India aced Olympic qualifier but must improve finishing before Tokyo

BHUBANESWAR -- It's a difficult job to objectively evaluate the Indian men's team's performance over two days in their Olympic qualifier against Russia, and not just because at No. 22 the visitors were the lowest-ranked nation among all those in qualification and thus any aggregate score for fifth-ranked India was always going to be dissected more than it should.

In the end, India won 11-3 but that scoreline flatters Graham Reid's team a bit -- you could only say that they coasted for the last 30 minutes of the two-hour-long contest. Russia drew level on Friday at one stage, and on Saturday they scored inside 22 seconds of pushback and nearly carried that advantage into the end of the first quarter.

Where did India go wrong?

It may have been complacency but India were slow off the blocks on both days. Reid expressed disappointment with the levels that most of his players exhibited on Friday, and defender Rupinder Pal Singh and midfielder Vivek Sagar Prasad also alluded to a lack of energy in the early exchanges on both days.

Reid said that India were not the "Robinson Crusoe" under the new format of qualification -- two games back-to-back that theoretically make the home side favourites but also give little time for both teams to recover after the first day. "If you look at the Australian women or the Netherlands men, they also had a little bit of a hiccup on the first day," he said. "It is a first for everybody. It's a lot of pressure that you are in as a team, as a coaching staff. It really is a credit to everyone involved that we've come through. To think that we would come out and play fantastically for both games would probably downgrade the opposition a little."

Areas for improvement

That is not to say there weren't visible weaknesses in the Indian game, and Reid was quick to concede those needed polishing ahead of the Pro League in 2020, which will act as a natural lead-up to the Olympics in August.

"What we need to get better at is the finishing. We're creating a lot of opportunities, which is great, but now we need to start getting a little bit more return," said Reid, who has also spoken this weekend of the need to improve penalty corner (PC) conversion rates. "PCs, I won't go into that, because that is something we are always looking to get better at, but also in deep defence. We have to get tighter in defence, and we are still giving away too many opportunities for the opposition."

Improved balance in the squad

One thing Reid has stressed on since taking over earlier this year is in keeping a good balance of youth and experience in his teams. Indian sides in the past year and a half have vacillated between a complete usage of youngsters and then going in for experienced hands.

The Olympic qualifiers saw India bring back the likes of Rupinder Pal Singh, SV Sunil and Birendra Lakra, and they gelled well with Vivek, Hardik Singh, Simranjeet Singh and other members of the younger brigade.

"This is a very balanced 33 [the core group] -- whoever is in the team can share their experience," said Sunil. "What the Olympics are is something I can tell them about. A lot of the guys are new and have no idea what it means to be at the Olympics. Manpreet [Singh], [PR] Sreejesh and all of us have played two Olympics. We seniors need to keep the team together, and as the coach has brought us seniors in, he has created the right mix."

What next for India?

As Russia tired, and the tie looked beyond their reach, India pulled out the style and gave an exhibition of hockey for the Kalinga faithful.

Akashdeep Singh produced a neat flick and shoot to score, Nilakanta Sharma thundered one shot from the edge of the circle into the Russian net and Rupinder pulled off a smart trick of scoring with drag flicks that went straight, low right and high right to sign, seal and deliver the Tokyo ticket.

Reid takes his 33 probables to a three-week camp and then picks his squad for the Pro League, where India play the opening couple of nights, hosting Netherlands in Bhubaneswar on January 18 and 19. The league assures them of 16 quality games until June 14, with a possibility of playing more with a top-four finish, and Reid is excited at the opportunity.

"We will get an opportunity for all these players to get mixed in that [Pro League], and that's for a number of reasons," said Reid. "One is that -- to work out the Olympics [squad], but there's a lot of games to be played over that period, and if all of them play all of those games, then we'll be in the best shape for the Olympics."

Aim is a simple one

"I don't care who you are -- you always dream of an Olympic podium finish. A medal of some description," said the former Australia international, who won silver behind Germany in 1992. "I was lucky enough to win one as a player, and those memories are things that you hold on to.

"That's what we need to bring to this team, to get them to the point where we can give it a good shot."