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Raipur has raised hockey's hopes for Rio, says Manpreet Singh

The midfielder was at the heart of India's historic bronze at the HWL final - first global medal in 33 years, and he believes Rio 2016 will be a lot better than London 2012. (Getty Images)

The midfielder was at the heart of India's historic bronze at the HWL final - first global medal in 33 years, and he believes Rio 2016 will be a lot better than London 2012. (Getty Images)

The midfielder was at the heart of India's historic bronze at the HWL final - first global medal in 33 years, and he believes Rio 2016 will be a lot better than London 2012.

He can replace the might of Sardar Singh in central field and also flick it into the net if needed. The midfield of a hockey park is where Manpreet Singh has erected villas, and it has established 'Korean' as one of the key figures of Indian hockey.

His spiked hair earned him that unique nickname during his childhood and it has stayed with him, even making its presence felt as a tattoo on Manpreet's calf.

A maiden from Malaysia bowled him over at a pretty young age, but Manpreet's focus has never swayed. In fact, the midfielder from Jalandhar has gone from strength to strength and now even mentioned by some as India's next captain.

And that's not without a reason. The 23-year-old has always led India coming up the junior ranks, even at the Junior World Cup. But it was his game more than his stature as the leader that always kept him in the spotlight. That's what earned him the Asian Junior Player of the Year award as well.

The team man in Manpreet comes to the fore whenever needed the most. Be it saving the team from a French embarrassment with a drag-flick goal, stepping into the shoes of Sardar and marshal troops from the centre of the field or falling back to fortify as a defender, Manpreet is that unique peg which fits every hole. In short, a captain's delight.

The latest among Manpreet's playing-out-of-your-skin efforts sprouted at the Hockey World League (HWL) Final in Raipur, where India huffed, puffed and finally laughed with a bronze medal on the chest - first in 33 years at a global event. And coming at the cost of world No. 2 Netherlands after being 0-2 down sweetened the success that much more.

Manpreet, the 'Player of the Final', played that game like a man possessed and was the difference between the Dutch and Indian midfield, save for those last two minutes when the visitors hushed the crowd to draw level at 5-5 before the hosts came back to win via a nervous shootout.

There couldn't have been a better way to end 2015, and there can't be a better man than Manpreet himself to tell how the team turned it around and what the fans can expect in the Olympic year.

You have cemented your place in the senior team and now seen as one of the strongest pillars in the midfield. How do you look back at your learning days, especially now when you are about to play your second Olympics?

I don't think I am very strong. All I try to do is give my 100 per cent whenever on the field. In the last two years, I have played with top players in the Hockey India League (HIL). That's where I have learned a lot sharing space with players like Moritz Fuerste, Ashley Jackson and Barry Middleton.

A medal at a major FIH event after 33 years. Are you still asking yourself 'is it a dream?' How did the team celebrate?

It was a historic moment for Indian hockey to win a medal after such a long time. We had a small team celebration after we won the bronze in Raipur. It was quite a big achievement for us because we beat the world No. 2 team (Netherlands).

India played like two different teams. Except against Germany, we didn't play well at the pool stage but in the knockouts we were brilliant. Did the team change anything in terms of strategy?

We messed up somewhat in the opening game against Argentina. But we then had video sessions where we noticed and tried to put a stop on all the mistakes we did. The team got together and made it a point not to repeat those mistakes in the knockout phase. So to improve from there and finish on the podium, I think we did a good job.

Do you think India deserved to play the final in Raipur, because we lost by just 1-0 to Belgium in the semis?

Certainly we deserved to play the final. We gave our all in the semi-final but may be luck was not on our side as we came close to scoring so many times. We made a lot of raids into the Belgian striking circle, created a lot of chances but unfortunately we couldn't avail the opportunities that came our way in that game.

Though we won bronze, there were still areas of concern. We were 5-3 up against the Netherlands with just two minutes left, but we couldn't hold the ball to kill time and allowed them to score two goals. What was the problem there?

We failed to keep possession in the dying stages of that game. The Dutch team earned two penalty corners due to our silly mistakes, which allowed them to equalise at 5-5. We should have concentrated on ball control at that time, but we failed to do that.

Apart from that, there are weaknesses that you don't want to see in an international team - like poor trapping in the opposition circle, soft mistakes in defence and conceding late goals. Does this frustrate Oltmans? What's his reaction when the team returns to the bench during breaks in a match?

It was not that much, and it certainly wasn't the case that only the Indian team was committing such mistakes; players in the other teams too were making similar errors. At times Roelant did get frustrated, especially for the goal-scoring chances we were missing. But overall, he used to remain positive, trusted us and believed that we can do it. Whenever we used to go back during half-time or during mini breaks after each quarter, he always used to egg us on to give your best.

Mis-trapping is an old problem for Indian forwards, due to which we have lost matches that we should have won. What's your personal opinion on this?

My personal opinion is that I don't think we committed too many mistakes. At times, we did miss chances we should have scored off, but overall I think the team did very well.

Most teams in Raipur were not at their full strength and some key players will join them for Olympics. Do you think it helped India finish on the podium?

We didn't focus on the strengths of our opponents. We were playing to our own plan. But top teams like Australia, Argentina and Belgium were almost at full strength in Raipur. One or two players may be missing, but these teams had most of their first-choice players. We did what we had to do without worrying about others, which is why we finished on the podium.

Rio is going to be you second Olympics after a poor last-place finish in London 2012. How do you see the team's preparations this time?

We are doing a lot of hard work. We did well in the HWL Final, and we have time on hand [before the Olympics in August 2016]. There is a lot of improvement and confidence in the team. So I feel we will do a lot better than London.

Olympics and World Cup are the two biggest tournaments for a hockey player. Is there some special preparation needed, especially on the mental level?

These two are the most important events for any hockey player. We have gone through a lot of psychological sessions in the past and it will continue as we prepare ourselves mentally getting closer to the Rio Games. Hockey India and SAI (Sports Authority of India) has provided us with a psychologist. We have had sessions with her, also before the HWL Final. So it's not just the physical aspect of it that we need to focus on.

You have played at almost every position in the last one year, including as a central midfielder in place of Sardar. Are you a floating player for the team or has Oltmans assigned you a fixed position now?

Roelant has told me that I will play in the midfield only - right, central or left - because he feels I can be at my best in that part of the pitch.

Not long ago you scored on a penalty corner in the absence of Raghu and Rupinder. Are you still the team's third flicker or is it Jasjit Singh Kular?

We have three drag-flickers, but whenever the team needs me, I step up to give it my 100 percent, as I have already said. Whenever I am needed in any situation, my thought process is to help the team come out on top with my efforts.

Final question. Looking at the performances until now, what do you think will be a respectable position for India to finish at the Rio Olympics?

Right now, at this moment, we are not thinking about positions. We are still in preparation mode for the Olympics. Once the competition arrives, we will take it match by match, and the target always is to first qualify for the top four and then take it from there.