India might be out of the running to retain the Junior Hockey World Cup title following a defeat in the semifinals against Germany but they still have a chance to finish on the podium at Bhubaneswar's Kalinga Stadium. Additionally, should they beat France on Sunday, they'd return not just with a bronze medal but also a form of retribution, having lost to the same side in their opening match of the competition. That early loss had not only hurt the hosts chances of finding a relatively easier route to the final but had also created a precedent where the team struggled to put together a complete performance that would eventually cost them against Germany.
No illusions about France's quality
India might have been considered the favourites the last time the two sides played but that was probably more a function of the fact that owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were no recent matches to actually ascertain the two teams' respective level. As the 5-4 defeat suggested, France were no minnows. France played, as Indian coach Graham Reid said, 'like a European team'. They controlled possession, held the ball, moved quickly and attacked down the right.
Just to show that the victory over India wasn't a fluke, France would go on to dominate their remaining matches in the group stage and then brush aside Malaysia - a side that had earlier held Belgium 1-1 - in the quarterfinal. France hasn't yet lost a match in regulation time in the tournament. Following a narrow loss in the shootouts to Argentina in the semis, hosts India will be under no illusions of the quality of their opponents a second time around.
Cut down errors
Even though it was just a single goal that separated the two sides in a high-scoring encounter, India had one of their weakest games in the competition. While the teams might have been rusty owing to the lack of competitive game time, India were uncharacteristically error prone. There were frequent missed traps while high balls weren't controlled.
Instead of the snappy passing that has become second nature to the senior team under Reid, the juniors showed a lack of coordination, often going off on pointless solitary glory runs. These mistakes were compounded by a French side that didn't let those chances go to waste. Right from the first minute, France seized the initiative, cutting through India's defence and entering the shooting circle with ease. They scored goals early in each half, putting scoreboard pressure right back on the Indians on both occasions.
Earn more penalty corner opportunities
India's drag flicking trio of Sanjay, Shardanand Tiwari and Araijeet Singh Hundal have been revelations, with each of them having high conversion rates over the tournament. However, the three of them have been wasted over the last couple of games. India earned just two penalty corners in the two knock out matches against Belgium and Germany. While the short corner was converted against Belgium, there was no such success in the semifinal.
India's forwards struggled to enter the shooting circle frequently enough in both knock out games - they had fewer moments inside that zone even in the win against Belgium. Even once in, the Indian strikers often looked to take their own shot rather than attempt to find a defender's foot, which might have had a higher percentage of success. It's likely that they will have a lot more success earning penalty corners against France, who lack the structural solidity that their neighbours Belgium and Germany possess. Even in their opening game, the Indians were able to counter-attack regularly, with Sanjay scoring a hattrick.
Can't count India out
Despite the disappointment the side would be feeling right now, it would be unfair to argue that France are favourites for a bronze. There's no lack of capability in this Indian team and they are due one match in the tournament where both their defensive abilities and counterstriking flair find the mark.
In their loss against France, the Indians had more than their fair share of chancse - twice striking the crossbar, while Timothee Clement pulled of a save for the ages from the goalline to stop a drag flick going through. India have had plenty of individual success, be it Yashdeep Siwach defensively against Belgium, both goalkeepers against the same side or strikers Hundal, Sudeep Chirmako and Maninder Singh, who were able to carve open the French defence easily. A rerun of the league match with a scoreline more favourable to the hosts wouldn't be a surprise.