Tokyo, Jul 23 (IANS): Eight-time champions India open their Tokyo Olympic Games men's hockey campaign against New Zealand at Oi Hockey Stadium here on Saturday.
On paper, it should be an easy assignment for Graham Reid's India. India are ranked fourth in the world, New Zealand are eighth. India have a clear advantage in head-to-head too -- they have won 21 of the 41 encounters, the Black Sticks have won 15, and five have ended in draws.
But when it comes to opening matches in the Olympics, things have rarely gone by the script for India as they are prone to struggle against lower-ranked teams.
"The Indian teams usually take time to settle down and therefore the boys have to be very careful as they have a crucial match against Australia coming up next," said Joaquim Carvalho, who represented India in the 1984 Olympics.
India are in Pool A with Australia (No 1), Argentina (7th), New Zealand (8th), Spain (9th) and hosts Japan (15th). Getting full points against all four lower-ranked teams will be vital if India are to get a good draw in the quarterfinals.
Reid's squad is a mixture of young and experienced players and has performed well in the last five years after it finished a dismal eighth in the Rio Olympic Games.
"New Zealand is a very good team. I have a lot of respect for the way they play, for their mentality. They are very tough and (my knowledge) that comes from having played against them and when I was associated with Australia, we had some good tussles with them, we have played a lot and so I know them well. I know how dangerous they can be. So, we will certainly be making sure that we are on our best game against them," said Reid in pre-match comments provided by Hockey India.
Reid has a squad at his disposal that can be a handful for the top teams on their day.
In skipper Manpreet Singh, goalkeeper PR Sreejesh defender Birender Lakra and forward Mandeep Singh they have a strong leadership core that can keep the emotions in check and guide the Olympics first-timers, of which they have 10 in the squad here.
Though the forward line looks a bit inexperienced, though Mandeep has played 150 internationals, the experienced hands in the midfield and defence should make up for that. The team has three good short corner specialists in Harmanpreet Singh, Rupinderpal Singh, and Amit Rohidas.
"They have to capitalise on the short corners as New Zealand is likely to crowd the defence. The best way forward against such tactics is to be aggressive and capitalise on chances. Creating short corners is a good option when the opponent is defensive," said Mervyn Fernandes, who represented India in the 1980 and 1984 Olympics.
India have had good results in the last couple of years. They have beaten Australia, the current world No. 1, Belgium, the reigning World Cup winners, Argentina, the reigning Olympic champions, a strong Netherlands, and Germany. It is this run of success that gives Manpreet & Co the confidence to take on any team in the world.
Though the team is a little bit short on the match practice -- they have not played an official match since against Argentina in April this year --, New Zealand recently played against arch-rivals Australia but lost all six matches, including two FIH Pro League encounters.
The European teams -- Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Great Britain, and Spain had participated in the European championships. The Indians had a lengthy camp at Bengaluru, playing intra-squad matches to simulate match situations.
That practice, which had helped get them to peak fitness, will face its first test against a New Zealand side that is in the buildup phase after they slumped from their highest ranking of fifth in 2013 to the current eighth.
The team coached by former midfielder Darren Smith depends a lot on attackers Stephen Jenness, Nick Wilson, and Hugo Ingis. In Shea McAleese they have an experienced defender, who will be playing his fourth Olympics.
"We've also got two vitally important drag flickers in Nic Woods and Kane Russell and some exciting young players like Sean Findlay and Dylan Thomas heading to their first Olympics," Smith told Hockey New Zealand's official website.
Smith too is eyeing full points against India, Spain and Japan. "It's a strong pool but we've definitely been focused on that opening match against India as one we'd like to get three points from."