India look to end long wait for hockey medal with win against Germany at Tokyo Olympics

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This will be about so much more than a bronze medal.

On one hand you have India -- the original royalty of (men's) hockey at the Olympics. There won't be many people who remember having watched India dismantle Germany at the Berlin Games final 8-1 in 1936, but you have probably heard of the urban legend around Dhyan Chand's four goals and the unlikely offer that is supposed to have followed.

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If anything, Germany are the new kings of the men's circuit at the Games. Replace 90 minutes with 70 minutes in the quote ascribed to Gary Lineker about 22 men chasing a ball and in the end Germany always winning, and you get the hockey version that has long done the rounds at Olympics.

This will be as much about holding your nerve as anything else.

Key storylines

If Tokyo is indeed the revival of Indian hockey, then the men winning their first medal in 41 years would be a good start. India are third in the world, and have played exactly like that -- they have only slipped up against Australia and Belgium, the only two teams ahead of them. For at least a quarter of their semifinal, they played well -- a superb penalty corner (PC) conversion by Harmanpreet Singh, and Mandeep Singh opening his account with a sharp take, spin and reverse shoot that would have done any legend of the sport proud. The 5-2 scoreline flattered Belgium a bit, because India were in the contest right till the last 11 minutes.

Germany have sputtered a bit more than you would expect, losing to Belgium and South Africa in their group stages, but sandwiched in there was a 5-1 thrashing of Great Britain. Forward Florian Fuchs, who scored a hat trick in that match, also scored one in a 5-2 demolition of India at London 2012, when he, defender Martin Haner and midfielder (and now captain) Tobias Hauke from the current team won their last gold. However, they played a good semi-final against Australia, hanging in the contest till the end. Just like India, the last goal in their 3-1 defeat was conceded after the goalkeeper had been taken off.

Where the match will be won

In the semifinal, India coach Graham Reid briefly won the tactical battle with opposite number Shane McLeod, but the canny New Zealander quickly switched to a half-court press and allowed India to have more of the ball once his team went behind. Defensive channels were tough to get past, and with their short corner exponents in good form, Belgium judiciously went for the jugular each time they got into scoring positions by winning PCs.

Kais Al Saadi's team would be expected to play a similar pattern -- holding their shape well and looking for strikers like Fuchs, Christopher Ruhr and Niklas Wellen to put pressure on the Indian defence. Reid had benched the experienced defender Birendra Lakra and the young attacking midfielder Simranjeet Singh in the semis, opting for the youth (and short corner ability) of Varun Kumar and Lalit Upadhyay up front. With a team like Germany, Lakra might make a return to solidify the back line.

Players to watch out for

Moments of indiscipline have prevented Manpreet Singh from truly leaving a mark on this tournament so far. In the quarterfinal win against Great Britain, he was shown yellow for a tackle inside the 25m circle. In the fourth quarter against Belgium, he got a green with the match tied 2-2. India need their captain to have a full game of relentless work, distribution and composure.

If Belgium had Alexander Hendrickx, Loick Luypaert and Tom Boon, then Germany are blessed to have Lukas Windfeder, Haner and Ruhr as reliable drag flickers of high quality. Windfeder's six goals are only bettered by Australia's Blake Govers (seven) and Hendrickx, who has romped his way to 14. It promises to be a busy day for Amit Rohidas as rusher, and PR Sreejesh as goalkeeper, and the match result could actually boil down to how many PCs are converted by either side.

Numbers game

  • Matches at the Olympics are an even split between India and Germany. In 12 matches, India have four wins, as do Germany, though three of Germany's wins have been in the last four encounters. Germany won 2-1 in the group stages of Rio five years ago, with Ruhr scoring the winner after Rupinder Pal Singh had cancelled out a Wellen goal.

  • The last medal match between these teams was also a bronze medal game in Mexico City 53 years ago. India won that fixture against erstwhile West Germany 2-1. Incidentally, they had also beaten the Germans 2-1 in the group, where they also beat East Germany 1-0. The result against East Germany isn't counted in the stats above.

  • The last major FIH event where they faced off was the World League Final in Bhubaneswar, also a bronze medal match. Germany, short of fit players, fielded their reserve goalkeeper as a striker, and he scored in an eventual 2-1 win for India.

  • Germany were slated to host India in Hamburg for two matches of the Pro League in May 2020, but those stood postponed indefinitely. India toured Krefeld, Germany in March this year, playing friendlies with Germany and Great Britain. They beat Germany 6-1 in the first game, and drew 1-1 in the second.

  • Whoever wins this match will also pull ahead in terms of total medals won in men's hockey at the Olympics. Both India and Germany currently have 11, though India's eight golds put them well ahead of Germany (four). Australia, who are currently tied with Netherlands on nine medals, are sure to pull ahead after their final on Thursday.