Australia in the way of Indian hockey's chance of redemption
A win will guarantee India a podium finish in the tournament for only the second time since 1982.
Melbourne: Australia stand between India and redemption as the two sides meet in the Champions Trophy semi-final here on Saturday in what promises to be a gruelling encounter.
India are assured of a top-four finish for the first time in Champions Trophy since 2004, whereas a win will guarantee Sardar Singh and his boys a podium finish in the eight-team tournament - a dramatic turnaround after the last-place finish at the London Olympics just over three months back.
Going into the big match, injuries are India's biggest headache as they prepare to take on four-time defending champions Australia. Two Indian players will carry their injuries into the match against the Aussies. Captain Sardar Singh and midfielder Manpreet Singh have gamely carried on playing as necessitated by the call of duty despite severe limitations caused by the injuries sustained during the ongoing tournament.
They will again be out in the field as India try to stop Australia's title-winning sequence in the Champions Trophy. Australia have a phenomenal record, winning four successive titles since losing the 2007 final to Germany.
In the hunt for their fifth successive Champions Trophy, Australia have fielded a very strong outfit and are looking to get into the big-scoring act that they have so far failed to produce in this tournament. Australia have been content with narrow victories in earlier games, and it was their defence that played a crucial role - conceding just two goals in four matches.
But they enjoyed good domination against England on way to the 2-0 victory in the quarter-finals. India, seeking to add to their lone Champions Trophy bronze medal of 1982, also banked on their defence in the quarter-final against Belgium.
The semi-final against Australia is expected to be a tough game physically, and coach Michael Nobbs on Friday took the team for a training session to iron out the problems with the forwards in the 1-0 win over Belgium.
"Our defenders were simply brilliant, but the forwards did not handle the ball well in the quarter-finals. These forwards have not been doing this in earlier games, so it probably seems to be a question of being out of position. We've worked on that today," Nobbs said.
Nobbs said he was pleased with the team's show in the Champions Trophy, which India entered by virtue of a wild-card despite finishing last in the 12-nation Olympic Games hockey competition.
"Making the Champions Trophy semi-finals has been wonderful after some disappointing results recently," said Nobbs, bringing into context India's disappointing show in the Olympics.
Nobbs complimented the Indian defence for standing its ground to carry India into the semi-finals. India defenders VR Raghunath and Rupinder Pal Singh played a crucial role in keeping India afloat and held onto the early lead despite the strikers losing he ball easily and putting the defence under pressure.
These two defenders and goalkeeper PT Rao will have to reproduce the same form if India were to entertain hopes of getting past Australia. Sardar has also been playing a withdrawn role, and is expected to do so again on Saturday.
"We have a problem with injuries, but the team needs to take that in its stride. Look at the way Sardar and Manpreet have continued to play by overcoming the pain," said Nobbs, adding that he took a calculated risk with striker SV Sunil, who will have no further role to play after aggravating his hamstring injury.
Nobbs said he took a chance in fielding right-wing striker Sunil in the quarter-finals, but Sunil could only play a limited role and the hamstring injury will now need recuperative rest of six weeks.
Australia's coach Graham Reid said his team was starting to peak despite scoring few goals in the preliminary league games. "One of our objectives was to get better with each game. I think we played pretty well last night against England," said Reid, who has been given charge of the bench for the Champions Trophy by chief coach Ric Charlesworth.
In the other semi-final, Pakistan are hoping to test the ability of the Netherlands defence. Netherlands are going for their third straight Champions Trophy medal after being assured of a top-four finish for the 25th consecutive time in the elite annual event.
(With inputs from PTI)