India return home with Asian Champions Trophy and plenty of positives


India went into the Asian Champions Trophy as the team to beat. They trounced weaker opponents and held nerve to carve out wins in tricky contests. In the final, they dethroned Pakistan to win the tournament for the second time. IANS out some of the key takeaways for Roelant Oltmans’ side.

Sardar serves reminder

The future of Sardar Singh has been among the juiciest debates surrounding the Indian team in the last 12 months. His role in the team further came under a scanner after he was replaced as the captain by goalkeeper PR Sreejesh for the Olympics. India, in recent months, have been playing at breakneck speed going forward. In the midfield, the 30-year-old – oldest player in this Indian squad – was accused of slowing down the pace of game. So he was moved up front. But having played a majority of his career as either a defender or centre-half, Sardar looked uncomfortable as a forward.

But his performances in Kuantan should silence his critics, at least for now. Sardar was having a mediocre tournament until the semifinal against South Korea, where he turned back the clock. India were trailing a defensive South Korea by a goal with just five minutes remaining. Sardar collected the ball on the goal-line right flank, and instead of drilling is across, he embarked on one of his trademark runs. He dribbled past four Korean defenders before passing it to Ramandeep Singh, who simply had to tap the ball in.

Not the one to single out a player for his performance, chief coach Roelant Oltmans created an exception for Sardar. “We needed something special in that contest and it was provided by Sardar. He created a brilliant goal, that’s what he is in the team for,” Oltmans said. It wouldn’t end there for Sardar. In the final against Pakistan, he would set up India’s second and third goals and win the Player of the Final award. He might not be the same as he was a year or so ago, but Sardar has served a reminder of his capabilities at the Asian Champions Trophy.

New core group

Post Olympics, it’s natural for teams to tinker with their squads. India were forced to introduces changes. India travelled to Malaysia without Manpreet Singh, SV Sunil and VS Raghunath, who’ve been crucial to the team’s progress in the last year or so. From the Olympic squad, striker Akashdeep Singh was rested while Harmanpreet Singh made way for Jasjit Kullar. The incomers, including Affan Yousuf, Pardeep Mor and Lalit Upadhyay, ensured India did not feel the pinch. Birender Lakra, who was out of action for a major part of the year after an ACL injury he suffered during the Hockey India League, looked in top shape as well, which bodes well for the team in the longer run.

But one of the most satisfying things was the performance of the second-choice goalkeeper. PR Sreejesh’s ankle injury forced him out of action for a couple of matches. his replacement Akash Chikte looked solid under the bar. Sreejesh had to step in during the semis to bail India out of a penalty shootout. The reserve goalie pulled off some remarkable saves against Malaysia in the final group stage match and in the final, he did not look overwhelmed. Goalkeeping has been India’s Achilles heel in the last few years, with the team struggling to find a back-up to Sreejesh. In Chikte, India may have found an answer although it remains to be seen how he performs against strong European teams and Australia.

Chasing India

India’s recent ascent has coincided with a collective dip in standards across Asia for varying reasons. South Korea, under Paul Lissek, perennially seem to be in a rebuilding phase while Pakistan have a whole set of issues – from finance to discipline. Malaysia have been a tricky opponent but not good enough to win big. It reflects in the ranking as well. India, the only Asian team at the Rio Olympics, are placed sixth. South Korea are second-best at 11th, followed by Pakistan (13). “It was a different position for our team to be in but they reacted well,” Oltmans said.

Although India entered the tournament as overwhelming favourites, it was going to be a test for Oltmans’s side without some of its key players. There was a visible difference in the manner in which the teams approached India as well. South Korea, for instance, were more defensive in the group stage as well as the semifinal. Playing with a packed defence, they looked determined to block India’s every move. Parking the bus, as they say. In the semis, they had 33 circle penetrations but could manage just two goals (although that also points to India’s poor conversion).

Pakistan and Malaysia too relied more on counter-attacks to beat India. Each time, India managed to eke out narrow wins. They weren’t pretty to watch, and at times the team struggled as well.