The Indian women's hockey team might have accomplished one of their goals -- qualifying for the World Cup in July -- but as they enter the semifinal stage of the Asia Cup, more challenges await. While they are the defending champions from 2017, the highest ranked side in the competition and carry the reputation of finishing in the top four at the Olympics last year, the Indian team will not be going into their last four match against South Korea on Wednesday as favorites. They have appeared rusty in their first full competition since the Olympics while their opponents have looked sharp.
Lack of game time
India came into the Asia Cup having played all of one international match post the Olympics -- at the Asian Champions Trophy in December following which a slew of COVID-19 cases resulted in the team spending the rest of the tournament in quarantine in Korea.
Although they had been training since September last year, this meant that the side was going into the Asia Cup with almost no match practice. This rustiness has been obvious over the three matches the side has played in Muscat.
Ahead of the tournament, coach Janneke Schopman had said that the team would use the tournament to test the work they had put in training in a real world situation. What the early matches at the Asia Cup have shown is that the team needs to get sharper. While India have scored 18 goals over three games, they have struggled with their finishing across matches. They have also at times seemed to have switched off -- conceding a goal against Japan in the first minute of their match in what was their toughest challenge of the group stage.
Penalty corners conversion
A major worry for Schopman would be the fact that her penalty corner specialists Gurjit Kaur and Grace Deep Ekka have had an off tournament so far. While they were able to pile up the numbers against Malaysia and Singapore, they ran up against a wall in the match with Japan. Despite getting six chances, the two drag flickers drew a blank.
It seemed they lacked options with both Kaur and Ekka relying on direct shots in all their attempts rather than going for a variation. Speaking to stick2hockey.com post the game against Japan, Schopman had voiced her disappointment in this area of the game. "This is very unfortunate because penalty corners were one area where we had been putting in a lot of work over the last few months."
While expectations might have been raised by the India's performance at the Olympics, it was always going to be hard to retain the same level of intensity. The absence of injured Rani Rampal in the midfield has also been a factor. Monika Malik -- the senior most midfielder in the side -- has been left to shoulder that role, something that she wasn't able to pull off against Japan. With South Korea not conceding any goals through their league stage, much will be expected from Malik if India's strikers are to get enough opportunities to score.
India on paper are the higher ranked side (WR 7) in their semifinal with South Korea (WR 12). They are also fourth place finishers at the Tokyo Olympics, a tournament South Korea didn't even qualify after being beaten by Spain in the Olympic qualifiers. However over the last few months, the Koreans have been putting together some strong results.
At the Asian Champions Trophy, they beat a Chinese team that had themselves only narrowly missed out on a place in the Olympic knockout rounds, and then were edged out by Japan by a single goal in the final. At the Asia Cup, they beat the same Chinese team by a far more comprehensive 4-0 margin.
While India will be looking to recover the same intensity of the Olympics, South Korea will be aiming to make up for a disappointing Olympic cycle last time around with a strong start to this one.