Hockey World Cup: How India can overcome tough opponents in the group stage

India are placed in a tough group alongside England, Spain and Wales. Hockey India

India are placed in Pool D at the FIH men's World Cup 2023, which is arguably the toughest among the four groups. Harmanpreet Singh and co. will play Spain on January 13 and England on the 15th -- both in Rourkela, before taking on Wales on the 19th in Bhubaneswar.

England are the highest ranked team in the group -- world no. 5, one above India. Spain are world no. 8 while Wales are placed 15th. In terms of quality, there's not much of a gap between England, India and Spain so it's not going to be easy for Graham Reid's men to finish first and take the sole automatic quarterfinal qualification slot. The second and the third placed teams have to win their crossover matches (against the third and second placed teams from Pool C) to make it to the last-eight stage.

So, how can India overcome a tough group?

India's biggest strength is their attacking hockey.

In the four matches they played in this season's Pro League, India have scored 15 goals, more than all other nine teams. In the previous season too they were the highest goal-scorers with 62. Harmanpreet Singh's efficiency from penalty corners plays a major part - he has scored five this Pro League season and scored 14 in the previous season, more than anybody.

But it's not just PCs. The forward line of Abhishek, Mandeep Singh and Akashdeep Singh makes them a potent threat inside the circle. In the recent Australia series, which India lost 4-1, they scored eight field goals and eight PC goals. That series against the world no. 1 outfit highlighted this scoring prowess - two of their losses were by just one-goal margins (5-4 in the first and the last matches).

Keeping this in mind, it's unlikely that India will put great focus on stopping England and Spain from playing their kind of hockey. Reid's priority will be India and his players focusing on their strengths, which is to create and convert the chances. Ergo, it's reasonable to expect high scoring encounters.

Where can India expect trouble?

Their recent record against England and Spain suggest there are weaknesses that can be exploited.

India's group stage match against England at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games ended 4-4. At one point, India were leading 3-0, but conceded three goals in the final quarter to lose out on a win.

When India played Spain twice in the Pro League, Reid's side conceded 19 penalty corners. Six in the first game, 13 in the next one. They lost the first match 2-3 before winning the next one in a shootout after a 2-2 draw.

Like India, both England and Spain play progressive hockey: focusing on winning the ball quickly through high pressing and earning penalty corners. England scored 33 goals in six matches at the CWG (where they won bronze). They have the likes of Sam Ward, Zach Wallace, Liam Ansell and Nicholas Bandurak who can turn games around with their goals.

Spain may be less prolific in terms of scoring goals, but they are relentless with their pressing intensity as seen in the recent Pro League matches.

There will naturally be periods during these matches where both England and Spain will cause India trouble. But limiting the damage when the momentum turns is the key.

They cannot, for instance, afford to give away 13 penalty corners in a crucial World Cup match. Another thing they have to look out for are silly errors, including cards, which played a big role in England's comeback at the CWG.

PC concession is a main weakness: Against Australia, India conceded 37 penalty corners in five matches. In the four Pro League games against Spain and New Zealand, India gave away 33 penalty corners. In those same Pro League games, India were shown more cards than their opponents. Indian players were shown yellow card (out for five minutes) thrice in four matches. Similarly, Indian players received more cards than their Australian counterparts.

When the competition is this close, like it is in Pool D, positive results will depend on managing these finer points.