New Delhi: Left with very little chances of making the last four, India face England on Saturday looking to improve their ranking in the 12-nation hockey World Cup.
Although chief coach Jose Brasa has been saying for months that a fifth-place finish would be a satisfactory result, the resounding victory over traditional rivals Pakistan on the opening day raised hopes of a strong performance. Capacity crowds thronged the Major Dhyan Chand Stadium for Indias last two matches only to find the home team routed, first by Australia and then, on Thursday, by Spain.
The results did not come as a surprise, said veteran Aslam Sher Khan, whose superb penalty corner strike took India to the final of the 1975 World Cup.
India had home advantage but the opposition was too strong in both the matches. Australia are the Champions Trophy winners and Spain are silver medallists at the last Olympics.
How can one expect them to be beaten by a team that finished 11th in the last World Cup and failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics, he asked.
Although Brasa said his team would go all out to beat England, no one expects the Indians to pull off a miracle. England are quite the in-form team of this tournament and are seriously building a squad for the 2012 Olympics that is to be hosted by London. In 2008, England had beaten India 2-0 in the crucial Olympic qualifier in Chile that saw the eight-time champions fail to qualify for the Games for the first time in 80 years.
We have a chance against England, said Brasa. Our strengths are at an even level, more or less. They are a matured side but perhaps got upset against Pakistan after (Richard) Mantell was injured.
True, India are a much better team now than what they were two years ago. Even legendary Australia coach Ric Charlesworth agrees: India have improved a lot. Only thing they have to do now is to play more consistently at the international level.
Many other team officials at the competition, too, feel that the Indian teams fitness level has gone up under the new coach.
What raised eyebrows was Brasas decision to persist with Sandeep Singh as the drag-flicker in the Spain match.
The Spanish goalkeeper, it was evident, had already figured out Sandeeps style of hitting during the teams tour of Europe. Brasa, many thought, shouldnt have allowed Sandeep to take all six penalty corners and should have opted for Dhananjay Mahadik or Diwakar Ram instead.
To add to that, man-to-man marking was absent from Indias game in the last two matches, which mistake the Englishmen are sure to capitalise on if repeated Saturday.
There were some mistakes we made. We have to improve our defence. We have to look for other weapons to tackle the opponents as these are the best players we have. We gifted away some soft goals to Spain and that happens only in a childish match, Brasa said.
Thus, for India, beating England in the penultimate group league match seems like too much to ask. The hosts, however, will be strengthened by the return of Shivendra Singh and one hopes it would add some bite to the Indian attack that looked rudderless in the match against Spain.
England have so far maintained an all-win record in the current championship and, at times, have even looked better than Australia.
It was no mean achievement for them to have overwhelmed the Aussies in the very first game although, against Pakistan, the English defence looked vulnerable for a brief period in the second half.