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September 16, 2000

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'Stay focused and keep cool'

Cedric D'souza

The cauldron bursts open on Sunday as India take on old rivals Argentina in its opening hockey match. The South Americans have been our bogey team and always given us a torrid time. One must not forget the debacle of 1996.

Every coach will advocate that it is essential to start a tournament on a winning note. Apart from being a tremendous morale booster, it sends a strong psychological message to to the rest of the participating teams. Confidence and belief will soar and conviction will override any fear inhibitions. Apart from this, the pressure to win will not be as immense in the next encounter.

So, what is so special about Argentina? Well, their strengths lie in their soccer-style approach:
Creation of gaps by hard off-the-ball running;
Numerically trying to outnumber the opposition whilst defending, soaking immense pressure by their dogged defending and rigid man-to-man marking.
Their never say die attitude and the capacity to complement one anotherís strengths and weaknesses.
Playing on the break /counterattack; capitalising on the very few chances that come their way.

Their set pieces, especially during penalty-corners, are dangerous. Besides, they have some very good individual skills.

We do not have to fear, but at the same time should not be overconfident. It is critical that we first beat them in our minds before going on to the field.

These are the tactics the team should employ:

Avoid unnecessary carrying of the ball, no matter how eye-pleasing it is to the spectators. The more we play 'give and go', the more openings we will create.

Their packed midfield will restrict our free-flowing fluidity and rotation of the ball or switching the game will not be permitted. This will effectively negate the cross balls from the wings. In my opinion we should inch towards the circle, by keeping possession, and then try and earn penalty-corners.

We know that the goalkeeper has the tendency to leave the goal unattended and charge out whenever we break into their 25-yard line. Past records will show that we must not engage him one to one as he has mastered this art of smothering. It is best to lead one way, thereby making him commit towards that side and then play the ball to the other side for a support player or for the attacker himself to go around him and pick the ball.

Their focus will be to mark danger-men Dhanraj Pillay and Mukesh Kumar out of the game. Our stalwarts should use their intelligence to pull the defenders away by decoy runs especially when we are approaching the 25. A small dummy call and off the ball running will also create havoc in their defense.

Early rebound preparation should be one of our points in our game plan. Whenever we are about to take shots at goal, our rebound men should be ready to pounce and move to pick up the rebound that comes off a defender or goalkeeper. In other words, think rebound before the rebound actually occurs.

When we are busy in attack and have pushed our midfield up, our defense must be most aware of their strikers that are roving around 25. These have to be marked very rigidly by our deep defense with our goalkeeper communicating where the gaps are to be plugged. This is to ensure safety from the long counter balls that will fly out of their midfield, by a hit or a scoop, when they dispossess us.

When they are in possession we must close them down very quickly and not give them too much room to manoeuvre as one of their strengths is to quickly transfer defense into attack. The more room they have the more dangerous they will be for our defense. If they are playing possession in their own half, then we must not push players up. Rather we should play the half court press and close out the gaps. Because if you push up in numbers and find yourself numerically less in midfield, then they will exploit this to the fullest.

Safety in our own circle when engaging them is a must. They will look for a foot and earn a penalty-corner, flat sticks with our feet behind the stick is a way to prevent foot infringements.

Our boys must control their emotions and anxiety if they are not being allowed to play their normal game. They have to be patient in their build up and stay focused. Failure to follow the game plan will lead to total loss of focus and this is exactly what they will look for.

Even if the team is a couple of goals up, they must maintain discipline in the ranks because any complacency will open the door and let the opposition in. And we all know Argentina's fighting capabilities.

Lastly let us look at the worst case scenario- A loss: Remember, there will still be four more games left in the pool. The focus should be on winning these and not brooding over the loss.

That done, there is no reason why we can't beat Argentina and break the first-game-loss jinx that has plagued us since decades.

Mail Cedric D'Souza

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