Olympics: Do or die for India in hockey
Having lost two matches, India need to beat the defending champions Germany to stay in contention for the semis.
London: Indian hockey's Olympic dream is in the fast lane towards the exit door. Two losses in as many pool games has left them in a must-win situation in the remaining three league encounters, and on Friday they run into the defending Olympic champions Germany in one of those.
Even a draw in their last three Pool B engagements will mean India can at best hope for a top-six finish, which is what the experts realistically expected of the Indian team before the Games began. So while Michael Nobbs's boys will still try to make it through to the semis, all is not lost for them as they can still win hearts by finishing in the top half of the 12-team event.
Along with Netherlands, Germany are expected to progress to the semis from Pool B, even though they have won their two games at best scratchily against Belgium (2-1) and Korea (1-0) so far. But that's how they have peaked in all major tournaments in the past.
Though Germany's stickwork so far in London is nowhere close to the one expected of the defending champions, they still have a lot more in the tank than the Indians who, after a fighting loss against the Netherlands (2-3), surrendered tamely to New Zealand (1-3).
The quality in the European giants' line-up is good enough to blunt India's tactics of playing open hockey and make the fragile Indian defence pay - like it has done in the two games so far.
It will be hard for India coach Michael Nobbs to check the problem boxes in a span of 24 hours. The defence is not able to break the raids, the attack is falling apart with lack of coordination, the midfield has allowed acres of space for the opposition to move forward and the youngsters are feeling out of place in their first Olympic Games. The promise that the team left with is falling awfully apart.
If it was felt that Sandeep Singh's drag-flicks were India's best suppliers of goals, then it was a reality check against the Kiwis on Wednesday when Sandeep failed to make use of the penalty corners in the second half after converting one in the first. And it won't be wrong to admit that he's fast becoming an excess baggage, especially due to his display, or the lack of it, as a defender.
Star playmaker Sardar Singh too has been a no-show so far. Expected to be the lynchpin, Sardar was tightly marked in the games against the Dutch and the Kiwis. To his credit, he found a way through in the second half against the Netherlands, which saw India pull two goals back, but the Kiwis never allowed him any space.
India has also paid a heavy price for the shoddy display by their forward-line. Shivender Singh is doing almost nothing in the striking circle, the tactic of rotating Tushar Khandker and SK Uthappa on the left flank has fallen on its face and SV Sunil is focussed more on speed than releasing the ball.
All of these players, barring the cool head of Ignace Tirkey, seem to be playing the occasion than the game. Clearly overawed by the magnitude of the Olympics, gaps have been left in the midfield, the defence has caved in and the forwards have failed to make the chances count.
Another loss on Friday against Germany will put a firm lock on India's door to the semi-finals, whereas a win for Germany will virtually put them through.
To end on a historical note, the Germans have never lost to India since Mexico 1968, and looking at the holes in the Indian defence, it will be hard for the eight-time Olympic champions to break that trend.