New Delhi: After four weeks of non-stop action, the 3rd Hockey India League will reach its crescendo with debutants Ranchi Rays and UP Wizards locking horns in the first semi-final while defending champions Delhi Waveriders take on Punjab Warriors in the second match on Saturday.
Punjab Warriors emerged as the team to beat this season, topping the league stages with 35 pints from 10 games ahead of Ranchi Rays while Uttar Pradesh Wizards finished third with 32 points ahead of the Waveriders, who have managed to accumulate just 25 points.
The first semifinal of the day at the Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium here will be between Ranchi Rays and the Wizards where the new outfit will start as overwhelming favourites, having defeated the Wizards 2-0 and 1-0 in the two encounters in the league stages.
But, the bruised and battered Wizards will be gunning for glory tomorrow and they know very well that a win tomorrow will erase all the bad memories of the league stages.
Both the teams have quality national and international players but the key to the contest will be the onfield battles between Ranchi skipper Ashley Jackson and rival Jeroen Hertzberger, striker Mandeep Singh and Ramandeep Singh and custodians Tyler Love and PR Sreejesh.
However, at the end of the day, the team that keeps its cool in crunch situations and execute its plans to perfection will emerge as the winner.
Confident of a good show tomorrow, coach of Uttar Pradesh Wizards said, "It's a big game tomorrow. We need to perform to our highest level that we have ever performed in the tournament. It's a clash for the run to the final. We have to perform in the best possible way so that we have a chance to play the final of Hockey India League, this season."
Ranchi Rays skipper Ashkley Jacksion hopes to continue their good run in the knockout-out stages of the tournament.
"The team has been in great form in the entire tournament and we have to ensure we continue in same vein in knocked-out stage. Each player will have to deliver to beat the Wizards.
Our focus will be to penetrate their 'D' and create penalty corners as much as possible. Personally, I will look at converting penalty corners that the team gets," Jackson said.
Ranchi coach Harendra Singh added: "Faltering here is no option for us. The boys will have to ensure that they attack and do not allow the opposition to put pressure on us. I am confident of a positive result."
Meanwhile, the second semifinal of the day is a re-match of last year's summit clash where the Waveriders somehow managed to eke out a win over Punjab Warriors in the tie-break after both the teams were locked at 3-3 after regulation time.
But after having finished second best last year and third in the inaugural edition in 2013, Punjab Warriors will be out to prove a point to their detractors by lifting the title this year and going by their form this season, the Jamie Dwyer-led side will approach the semifinals as one of the favourites.
The Waveriders, on the other hand, will be desperate to hold on to the trophy but it will be easier said than done as in Punjab Warriors they face a tough semifinal opponent.
The Waveriders started the season on a rather sedate note but picked up the momentum and looked a rejuvenated side in the second half of the season. They will enjoy overwhelming crowd support tomorrow but they will have to dish out a herculean effort to get past the in-form Punjab Warriors.
Going by their head-to-head record this year, Punjab will definitely fancy their chances tomorrow. They had defeated Delhi 3-1 and 7-0 in their two meetings this year.
The players to watch out for Warriors are skipper Jamie Dwyer, dragflicker Sandeep Singh and goalkeeper Jaap Stockmann, while the Delhi outfit will be relying heavily on the services of young striker Akshdeep Singh, inspirational captain Sardar Singh, among others.