- 'I hope our training on creating early pressure will be evident when we go into the competition'
Already assured of a place in next year's Rio Olympics, a relaxed Indian men's hockey team would look to experiment with its strategies in the FIH World League Semifinals. India take on a lowly France in the side's tournament opener in Antwerp on Saturday.
Antwerp is hosting its first major international hockey tournament since the 1920 Olympics.
The Hockey World League (HWL) Semifinals offers direct entry to the 2016 Olympics for three teams each in the men’s and women's competitions.
The Indian men's team is the only one in this tournament, which includes reigning World Champions Australia besides former Olympic champions Pakistan and Great Britain, to have already secured its passage to Rio by virtue of winning the gold medal at the Incheon Asian Games in 2014.
Under the stewardship of new chief coach Paul van Ass, the Indian men's team has the rare luxury of trying out new strategies in a major international event.
Van Ass acknowledged that India is now able to match the pace set by the rivals, but his wards need to back their ability of setting the pace to suit their game plan.
"When fit enough, the Indian players are quite good when the rivals make the pace of the contest, but they need to learn to dictate the flow of the contest," said Van Ass, who
took charge of the Indian team two months ago ahead of the Azlan Shah Cup in Malaysia, where the team won the bronze medal.
"We need to be much better in making the speed of the game," said the Dutchman, adding that the team also needs to be more coordinated when defending its own goal.
"Defending as a group is important. It is a structure story about getting the angles right."
India's qualification for the Olympic Games has provided the former Dutch national coach, some time to implement his strategy and assess the abilities of the players available to him, although a few injuries during the training camp ahead of the Belgian sojourn has put paid to the Team’s plans.
Three late changes were made to the Indian squad for the World League Semifinals.
India are pooled alongside Australia, thrice World Cup holders, and arch rivals Pakistan, beside Poland and France in Group A.
The French are India's opening day rivals, who have grown in strength in recent years.
"I hope our training on creating early pressure will be evident when we go into the competition," said Van Ass.
Having got a feel of France's ability in a warm-up game here early this week, India captain, Sardar Singh said: "We'll go out to exert early pressure and retain maximum possession."
It was a runaway victory over France in the qualification tournament's final that secured India's passage to the 2012 Olympic Games, which then turned out to be an embarrassment as the Indians finished at the bottom of the 12-team event in London.
Three spots from each of the World League Semifinals are on offer for the Olympic Games, but even some positions outside the Semifinals have realistic chances of making it to the 2016 Olympics. The multiple qualification routes that allocate five spots to continental tournaments can have some teams securing dual Olympic qualification, and that could allow even teams placed fifth or sixth in the World League Semifinals to make it to Rio.
Men - Pool A: Australia, India, Pakistan, Poland and France.
Pool B: Great Britain, Belgium , Malaysia, Ireland and China.