The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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India need to tighten defence in crucial game

Cologne: With victory still eluding India despite two decent performances, their hopes of finishing in the top four of the Champions Trophy hockey tournament rest solely on the defence, particularly goalkeeping, against Australia in a crucial match Tuesday.

India drew 3-3 with Olympic champions Holland on the opening day and lost 2-3 to world champions Germany Sunday. Dhanraj Pillay & Co. will hope to arrest the trend against the World Cup runners-up.

In their two matches thus far, the forwards have managed to sound the boards but a loss of concentration towards the end robbed India of a win and a deserving draw.

For a positive result against the Aussies, Indians will have to ensure a water-tight defence and, at the same time, hope that the frontline of Prabhjot Singh, Gagan Ajit Singh, Deepak Thakur and Pillay continue to deliver the goods.

The situation would have been vastly different had India managed to hold on to their 3-2 lead against the Dutch and the 2-2 scoreline against Germany. Four points in the bag would have placed India second in the standings — a much better position than the fifth they enjoy currently.

Coach Rajinder Singh is, however, happy with the way the team has played. “I can say I am satisfied. They have fought well and have got the goals that were not coming in earlier tournaments,” said Rajinder. “Yes, I am concerned with the late goals we have been conceding but I think with time the boys will learn to hold their own in pressure situations.”

The Indian coach has every reason to believe in his team but the fault cannot be taken away from his boys.

Captain Dilip Tirkey, with over 200 internationals under his belt, has the experience but has been found wanting in the tackle. Against Germany, Tirkey was beaten more than a couple of times by the speed of Oliver Domke and Timo Wess.

The same goes for goalkeeper Devesh Chauhan. He had his share of glory when India won the junior World Cup and also played in the last three matches of the World cup earlier this year after regular goalkeeper Jude Menezes flopped. But it was disappointing to see him being beaten by straight flicks aimed at the body.

On current form, Australia are at their lowest — especially after the 1-6 battering they received from the Dutch Sunday. They are rebuilding the team, keeping in mind the 2004 Athens Olympics, and have lost both their games here.

The Indians would do well to go all out and test the shaky Aussie defence from the word go. “That is what we hope to do,” said Rajinder. “They are a good team but the Dutch showed they can be beaten on the counter-attack. That is where all the Dutch goals came from.”

Rajinder’s hope that the Indian goals will come from counter-attacks is a fair assesment of what has transpired till now in the tournament.

Instead of running through the middle, the Indians have stretched the flanks — something that was seen when the likes of Mukesh Kumar and Thoiba Singh were in the team.

Prabhjot may not be of that class as a winger yet, but he does have the speed and the dribble. If he develops the vision as to how to utilise a goal-bound move, most defence lines will be tested.

Deepak Thakur has impressed the most in the forward line. He has regularly created space for Pillay and Gagan Ajit Singh, who have utilised the chances that have come their way.

In midfield, the only worthwhile performance has been from Bimal Lakra. It was surprising to see Sukhbir Singh Gill take on a defensive role as he has the stickwork to play upfront and initiate attacks.

The last thing Indians should do is underestimate the Aussies. Just because they were beaten 2-3 by the Koreans and thrashed by the Dutch doesn’t necessarily mean they will again cave in.

In any case, their record against India over the years has been very good and they would be leaving no stones unturned to maintain it in what is a must-win match for them.

The last three matches between these two nations all went the Aussie way. In the just concluded Rabobank Classic, Australia beat India 3-1. In a four-nation tournament earlier, the Aussies won 6-1. In the Kuala Lumpur World Cup, Australia overcame India 5-3 in a pool fixture.

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