The last time the Indian Junior Hockey team took on Belgium, they created history, beating them 2-1 to win the Junior Hockey World Cup in 2016. Five years after that accomplishment, India find themselves in the position of having to get past the side from Europe yet again, albeit this time in the quarterfinals.
India bounced back from a shock opening day loss to France and pumped 21 goals past Canada and Poland. However, their last eight clash against the table toppers from Group A will be a far tougher task, with a much smaller margin of error. India will likely have fewer scoring chances, while plenty of questions ought to be posed to goalkeepers and their penalty corner defending.
Of all the teams who have qualified for the quarterfinals, none have let in as many goals as India.
While five of the eight goals India have conceded came in the match against France, both Poland and Canada, nowhere near the strongest teams in the competition, managed to find the back of the net. Canada managed a solitary strike but Poland scored twice, both in the space of a single quarter. Poland could very well have scored more, since India conceded 7 penalty corners against them of which just one was converted.
All told, India conceded 15 penalty corners in the group stage - of which just 4 were converted. Giving away as many gifts to a side like Belgium will likely end poorly.
India have been aggressive, looking to score goals at every opportunity. However, they have also been guilty of infractions that have left them a man short on the field. In their final league match against Poland, Indian players were penalized with three yellow cards and two green cards. Ergo, for nearly a third of the match (19 minutes) the hosts were playing with just 10 men on the field.
Captain Vivek Prasad, despite his Olympic pedigree, was amongst the worst offenders and was off the field for 7 minutes. It had a direct impact in the final match against Poland. India played with 10 men for 10 of the 15 minutes of the final quarter and ended up conceding two goals in that time.
Like many teams during the Covid-19 pandemic, India haven't had the best preparation for the Junior World Cup, with many exposure tours getting cancelled. The team that won the World Cup in 2016 had several players who had already competed for the senior squad. In contrast, the Indian team in 2021 - with the notable exception of Vivek Prasad - have no such experience.
This inexperience has been on display, with the team's defence crumbling under pressure - both against France as well as Poland. India's goalkeeper Prashant Chauhan struggled against France and wasn't really tested against either Canada or Poland, save for the final quarter. Much will be expected of defenders, Abhishek Lakra and Shardanand, who will need to step up in a must-win game against Belgium.
The team is aware that the margin of error in the Belgium encounter will be a lot slimmer than in any previous game. "I feel we took our first match (against France) too lightly, but have learnt from our mistakes. We are fully charged up for the quarterfinal against Belgium. We had a meeting, especially for forwards, today and we know even one small mistake or slight drop in energy will cost us dearly against Belgium. We are focused on playing our 'A' game against them," noted forward Araijeet Singh.
For all of the challenges India have faced so far, they ought to be emboldened by the fact that even in their solitary loss against France, they were always able to return pressure on opponents. India have played a hard pressing game that has seen them scoring 25 goals in the league phase.
Belgium's defence has been tight so far - they have conceded just two goals in the league phase - and will be hard to crack. However, India will feel they are up for it. The drag flickers have been exceptional, with all three of Sanjay, Araijeet and Sharda registering goals against their name. As long as forwards Sudeep Chirmako and Uttam Singh keep earning penalty corners up front, India will remain a serious threat.
With Belgium having a less than ideal final league encounter against Malaysia - they only just held on to a 1-1 draw - India will think they have plenty of chances to roll them over. "They (the players) had a look at them playing and we are very confident and hopefully we can go and get a victory," coach Graham Reid said.