Tokyo 2020: Can India's midfield rise to the occasion in high-stakes Great Britain clash?

India's Rupinder Pal Singh celebrates after scoring against Spain. JEFF PACHOUD/AFP via Getty Images

Sunday evening could be massive for Indian hockey. At 5:30 pm IST, the men's team will have pushback in their quarterfinal, the second successive time at the Olympics where they have made this stage, against Great Britain (GBR).

India haven't medalled in hockey, the sport that has identified them at this stage for close to a century, since their eighth gold in 1980. Eight years on, GBR won gold in Seoul, but only have a semi-finals appearance at home in London to brag about since.

So how is the match expected to pan out? Who are the key players worth watching out for in each side?

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Key storylines

India began with a 3-2 win against New Zealand, before Australia sent them crashing down to earth with a 7-1 scoreline, the worst defeat for India at the Olympics. The team has shown great resolve to bounce back with three successive wins, including 3-1 against Argentina, just the second time that they have beaten the reigning champions at the Olympics. These results have taken them from no.5 to no.3 in the world rankings, just behind Australia and Belgium.

In contrast, GBR have had a tough time finding consistency in Tokyo. Playing as England, they topped their group at the recent European Championships in Netherlands, eventually finishing fourth, but have only beaten Canada and South Africa in their group games here, with drawn matches against Belgium and the Netherlands. They have shipped in 11 goals, though, including five in one game to the Belgians.

Where will the match be won?

GBR approach the game with structure, and will try and overrun the Indian midfield to prevent them from controlling the tempo of the game. In captain Adam Dixon and vice-captain David Ames, they have the experience of over 400 caps for England and GBR, and just the right foil for a relatively inexperienced Indian forwardline.

India's midfield, meanwhile, have started slowly in this tournament, but have begun to come to terms with the conditions in a beautiful way. Coach Graham Reid has employed his alternate athletes in a judicious manner, and with Simranjeet Singh and Varun Kumar joining midfield and defence, it has given him the leeway to rest the likes of Birendra Lakra, Rupinder Pal Singh and Mandeep Singh. Captain Manpreet Singh has been industrious, without having a standout performance. He will look to stamp his authority in this clash, especially considering how India have often slipped up at the first knockout hurdle in big events over the past five years.

Players to watch

As the tournament has gone on, one player who is coming into his own is diminutive midfielder Nilakanta Sharma. He appeared omnipresent at times in the 5-3 win in India's final group stage win against Japan on Friday, working from one circle to the other, and fittingly popping up with an opportunistic strike that took India's list of scorers at these Games to nine (for 15 goals). If he gets adequate support from Vivek Sagar Prasad and Hardik Singh, then we might also see a lot more of Manpreet in his preferred creative role.

India and GBR haven't met in a big clash for a while, with Covid forcing cancellation of their Pro League games in London last summer. When England beat India at the World League Final group stages in Bhubaneswar in 2017, striker Sam Ward had struck twice to give his team a 3-2 win. Ward also scored both goals when England beat India to the Commonwealth Games bronze medal at Gold Coast in 2018, where India had won 4-3 in the group stages. Ward was England's top scorer at the Euros as well, and scored twice in the last 10 minutes here to help salvage a point against the Dutch. He is a threat off both open play and drag flicks, something that marks him out from all the Indian forwards.

Numbers game

  • India and GBR have met eight times at the Olympics, with a 4-4 split down the middle. India won their first gold as an independent nation at the expense of GBR in the final in London 73 years ago.

  • Each of the four wins for both teams have come in succession, with GBR's first win (3-0) over India in 1988 coming the group stages on way to their gold medal.

  • India lead the head-to-head comprehensively (3-0) in terms of knockout matches, with semi-final wins by 3-1 at Helsinki 1952 and 1-0 at Rome 1960.

  • This will be the first time India and GBR will meet at the Olympics since a crossover for fifth place at Sydney 2000, won 2-1 by GBR after India had taken an early lead.