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September 22, 2000
Bhaskaran confident before crunch gameJaideep Singh in Sydney
India finds itself in a mad scramble for a semifinal berth in the men's hockey event at Sydney.
A string of surprise results has turned Group B into the pool of death -- but as far as India is concerned, perhaps suicide would be the better word, for its plight is entirely of its own making.
A lackadaisical display against their Asian bugbears Korea has meant that India's hopes of making its first Olympic semifinal since the 1980 Moscow Games hangs on a thread.
That one poor game undid all the good that two very good performances earlier had done, and now coach Bhaskaran and his team face a long haul. Bhaskaran, though, believes that getting into the semifinal is well within the scope of his team.
India have a good record against Spain. They had beaten them 3-1 in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics though Spain went on to claim the silver and India finished a poor eighth. At the 1980 Moscow Olympics, India had beaten Spain 4-3 in the final to win the gold, the last of eight. In the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics also India scored an identical 4-3 win over them. However, in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Spain beat India 2-0.
''I am confident that India will qualify for the last four,'' coach Vasudevan Bhaskaran said, shrugging off the disappointment of the loss to Korea.
''One defeat cannot take away the fact that we are playing good hockey. Our first two matches were very good. Against Korea also we had our share of chances but we failed to capitalise.''
The fans appear to share that optimism, for there was quite a demand for tickets for Saturday's game against Spain. Obviously, the defeat by Korea has not led to any lessening of support for the Indian team.
Theoretically, all six teams have a chance of making the semifinals. But practically, the race is between India, Australia and South Korea, with Spain threatening to rain on someone's parade.
Though Poland is at par with India at this point, it is still not being taken as a serious contender for the last four berth. However, both Spain and Poland will be keen to finish in the top six, in order to clinch entry into next year's Champions' Trophy.
The Indian tendency to panic was evident in the game against Korea the other day. As the opposition went into a 2-0 lead, Indian nerves began fraying and their game went to pieces as a result.
Thus, the rest day today comes as a welcome change of pace, providing time for some much-needed introspection.
India can't afford to take Olympic and World Cup silver medallists Spain lightly, in the next counter.
The Australians, meanwhile, take on South Korea in a key encounter that, like the India-Korea game, could be played at a very fast tempo.
The Aussies still play South Korea in a crux encounter that could raise the tempo like the India-Australia game. Leave aside India, even Australia is still to come to grips with the situation where it could still miss out on a place in the semi-finals despite five points from the first three games.
Sensing their maiden entry into the semifinals, the Koreans will be a tough proposition and the Aussies realise the threat.
An upset win for South Korea, who lost to the Aussies in the final of last year's Champions Trophy in Brisbane, cannot be discounted. It speaks volumes of the Korean prowess in the sport that as Asia's highest-ranked team today, it demands and gets respect in top-notch competitions.
Observers here are still surprised at the Indian team's fluctuating fortunes and the listless display against South Korea. The disparity of deeds in the matches against Australia and Korea continued to be the talking point at the State Hockey Centre, the Homebush venue for the Olympic competition.
The India-Australia match still remains the showpiece of the Olympic hockey event. But after the performance against Korea, there hangs a big questionmark on the Indian team's ability to rediscover the form of previous matches.
Even if they can't catch up and end up paying the price of an indifferent start to the Olympic campaign, Spain will be playing for pride.
Spanish coach Toni Forrellatt said on Thursday that the team rediscovered the joy of its hockey in the keenly-contested game against Australia.
"We've got the touch back and the boys will now be looking for six points from the remaining two matches," the Spanish coach said. Surely not the words of someone to be taken lightly.
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