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Aussie aggression will be hard to contain

July 07, 2005 19:47 IST

In a repeat of the 1997 final at Milton Keynes, defending champions India will clash with Australia in the semi-final of the Rabobank Men's Junior World Cup hockey tournament in Rotterdam on Friday.

In the other semi-final, Spain, the top-ranked team in the tournament, will clash with Argentina, runners-up to India in 2001 at Hobart.

The India-Australia tie should be an intriguing affair, apart from being a clash of styles that should make for a top-class contest, at least on paper.

While India coach Harendra Singh said the outcome of the match would depend on the day's form, his Australian counterpart Mark Hager preferred to hedge his bet, saying the encounter would be close.

But neither coach was prepared to commit himself on the result, and understandably so.

The Indians have been typically unpredictable in their performance that has swung from sublime, as against the Netherlands, who them beat 4-1, to mediocre during their 1-0 win versus England on Wednesday night that clinched them the semi-final berth.

In contrast, the Australians, ranked third, have been sustaining a high level of performance except during their shock 1-3 defeat to Argentina on Wednesday that could be put down to slackness due to the fact that they had already qualified for the semi-final.

However, the Indian camp would have surely looked closely at two other matches that stretched Australia. Pakistan lost 2-3 to the Aussies, while unheralded but talented Malaysia held them to a 3-3 draw. In both these games, the Australian defence was put to test and there were moments when they looked as vulnerable as the next team.

Hager admitted that he was concerned about the sudden lapses in concentration, but was confident that his team would tighten up.

"We need to play consistently against teams like India and Pakistan. On Friday, we would be very focussed which was not the case when we took on Argentina. Also, a couple of our key players would have recovered fully from their niggles. So, we hope to be on pace for the semi-final against India," Hager said.

On his part, Harendra put up a bold front saying if India play to their potential, then they can go all the way to win the World Cup for the second consecutive time.

"Our aim is to retain the World Cup and I feel we have the ability to do so. It is a question of playing to our potential and converting the scoring chances. In the last two games, against Korea and England, we were under pressure to win to qualify for the semi-finals. As such, our players were a bit cramped," said Harendra.

Pressure did get to the Indian team, especially on Wednesday when they struggled to beat a side that was definitely inferior to them in all departments of the game.

But in their anxiety to score and also prevent conceding a goal, the Indians committed far too many errors, which, luckily for them, went unpunished.

India cannot expect such largesse from the aggressive Australians who would be seeking to get on top from the start.

In this context, the Indian deep defence, that has not exactly been a picture of confidence, can expect some difficult times on the morrow.

The Aussie forwards have been swift in their approach, marked by one-touch moves, and execution with first-time hits to goal from any position or angle, something that the Indian forwards have not done.

If the Indians largely depend on full-back Sandeep Singh for goals, then the Australians have looked more versatile with all the forwards being capable of scoring from open play besides boasting of more than one player capable of converting penalty-corners.

"Yes, Sandeep is our trump card and there is nothing wrong in playing to our strength," said Harendra while admitting that the Indian forwards have been guilty of individual play that also underlined lack of co-ordination.

Overall, the Australians would be starting out as odds-on favourites, but if the Indians play freely, like they did against the Dutch, then they have as much a chance to make it to the final. The contest could boil down to test of character and the team that blinks first will lose.

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