Ahead of the two sides' clash on Wednesday, there's been some talk that India's quarterfinal match against Belgium in the 2021 Junior Hockey World Cup will be a reprise of an earlier match - the final of the 2016 edition. Although India won that contest, just that result can't be extrapolated to this latest encounter.
Being an age group tournament, it is obvious that neither team would still feature the same players from five years ago. Indeed, the only common figure from both those games will be Belgium's coach Jeroen Baart. Individuals from both teams in that contest would graduate to the senior squad and ended up meeting in the semifinals of the Olympics, where the Belgians emerged victorious.
But even though this latest batch of players haven't ever had a chance to play each other, they will know what they are up against. Wednesday's match is a clash not just between two teams but of two philosophies of hockey - a classic stylistic matchup. "You see the DNA (playing style) comes down from the senior team, and the senior team is world no 1," India's coach Graham Reid said about Belgium. Reid doesn't mean to say that Belgium's style has been thrust down from what the seniors. Over the last decade, beginning from the juniors, Belgium has created a playing style that's worked miracles for them - winning them the Olympic title this year. What this is is a solid defensive structure where Belgium controls the pace of the match. "We focus on control to create opportunities. For us that means maintaining structure and intensity," says Jeroen Baart.
India have a philosophy too - one that's also been a decade in the making and which resulted in a drought-ending Olympic bronze. Baart knows of this as well. "India play is about counterattacking with speed and vertical play. "Our style of play is very complimentary to India. India like to counter-attack using their speed and vertical play. They do it really well. We are focused on our defensive end and on controlling the ball to create opportunities," says Baart.
Signs of vulnerabilities
Both teams will go into Wednesday's clash knowing not just each others' playing styles but also based on their performances so far at the World Cup what they aren't happy facing with. In their first match of the tournament India fell to a shock 5-4 loss to France - a side that's looking to cast itself in the Belgian model. The French controlled possession for much of the game and the Indians, except for a brief flurry in the final few minutes of the match, were unable to get into the shooting circle. That last bit of relentless pressure will trouble Belgium though. "We will have to survive those waves from India," Baart says.
Belgium too have shown vulnerabilities in Bhubaneswar. In their second game against Malaysia - they were held to a surprise draw against a side that tightly defended, giving no opening of its own. India chief coach Graham Reid alluded to that as well. ""We also saw some vulnerability the Malaysians were able to capitalise on and hopefully we can do that," said Reid. That though will be easier said than done since it would require going against the free flowing hockey the Indian team prizes.
Can they play their A-game?
While both sides have displayed vulnerabilities, they equally have the potential to nullify each other's strengths as well. Both sides will find that their release tactics might not have the same kind of success as they might have had against other teams.
The Belgians for one might find the high ball -- a tactic very successfully employed by their Olympic champion senior side as well --has no guarantee. Although the French side did manage to use the high ball successfully, that match was marked by unusually poor trapping and interception from the low-on-match-practice Indians, who would back themselves not to have two bad days in a week's time.
India, on the other hand, will find that the kind of defenses that allowed their counterattacking play to end up scoring 25 goals in the league phase might not have the same kind of opportunities against a side that prides itself on its defensive structure. The fact that India have lost striker Maninder Singh due to injury might place addition pressure on the remaining first choice forward line. Coach Reid admits that impatience might be a factor should the young Indian side not get the kind of gifts they would have been used to over the last few days. "That's (impatience) one of the tough parts when coaching someone younger since it doesn't come naturally in younger boys. Kids at that age want things to happen right now. You have to try to teach them patience and move the ball around. When you see Belgium play, you will see that patience because it's been ingrained in them growing up," he admits.
In a high-stakes encounter against two sides who started as pre-tournament favourites, what both coaches admit will be critical is just who handles the pressure better. Should the hosts go 2-0 down as they did in their opening game against France, then it's likely that scoreboard pressure could cause them to play poorer than they might otherwise have."There might have been some nerves ahead of the first match of the tournament. Hopefully that would have been washed away by now. What I'm focused on is that we are tight in defence all through the game. But our priority would be to get off to a good start," says Reid.
Baart will be hoping to deny India of just that. "It's going to be a fantastic match-up. We expect a lot of attacking and aggression from the Indian team. We need to have the right structure and the right intensity at the right moment to deal with it."