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Indian women’s hockey at Asian Games: Shot at bronze but it’s a cloud with no silver lining

The Indian women’s team have been knocked out of Asian Games gold medal contention after a 4-0 loss to hosts China in the semifinal. It was a result that reflected the Chinese superiority in the game, as Janneke Schopmann’s side were outplayed in all facets of the game.

The defeat means India cannot qualify for next year’s Olympics through the Asian Games route, and will have to play a qualifying tournament in early 2024 for another chance to book their tickets to Paris.

India’s technical skills let them down

Speaking to ESPN before the tournament, Schopmann acknowledged the need for India to handle the nerves and the pressure of occasion. The team certainly didn’t do that in this semifinal. India’s technical skills let them down, and that meant a complete inability to lay a glove on the Chinese until the fourth quarter.

In the first quarter, India stood firm in defence, and even kept three penalty corners out, through a combination of strong defending and good goalkeeping from Savita Punia. But the Indians had no attacking impetus of their own, as with failed traps and misplaced passes galore, India could never progress the ball into the Chinese circle, which therefore meant that they couldn’t take any shots either.

That can be attributed to just having a bad day, but when so many players have bad days at once, perhaps the pressure of the occasion today. Schopmann said that she had been working on the mental aspect of the game with the players before the games, using techniques taught to her by some of her coaches in the Netherlands.

Whatever those techniques were, they didn’t work for this game against China, as the Indian performance resembled a deer in the headlights.

Schopmann’s questionable game plan

Perhaps India’s best win in the past few years – the 1-0 win over Australia at the Tokyo Olympics – came through a game plan that left India being an attacking threat even though they were able to maintain numbers in defence. However, only one aspect of that remained in this game.

India had numbers in defence, but there was no discernible structure to it, and because of those numbers at the back, any foray forward needed individual bits of brilliance from players to carry the ball forward, as the number of options was severely limited.

That game plan meant that India needed a robust defence to keep the Chinese threat at bay. However, the hosts found spaces in the circle, won a number of penalty corners, and had enough opportunities to work Savita more often than she’d have liked.

It was through penalty corners that China scored their first two goals, both of which were deflections that left Savita with little to no chance. The second of those was scored right at the end of the third quarter, which was when India decided to have a go in terms of playing attacking hockey. It was too late anyway, and India didn’t produce enough to threaten a 2-0 lead either.

Where is the consistent goalscorer?

In the fourth quarter, Navneet Kaur ran into the Chinese circle, saw the goalkeeper way off her line, and inexplicably decided to slide the ball to her right, to nobody in particular. That summed India’s attacking play up. When your gameplan is a defensive one, you need clinical attackers to finish the few chances that you create.

Does the name Rani Rampal ring a bell? She was India’s best goalscorer but has been kept out of the squad for reasons only known to Schopmann and Rani herself.

The likes of Vandana Katariya, Navneet and Lalremsiami are fine players, but none of them give away the vibe of a leader of the attack. They were all phenomenal support players to Rani, and now in the absence of that focal point to support, looked a bit lost in the face of a quality opposition.

This tournament is a failure as far as India are concerned, and after last year’s World Cup, it is a failure Schopmann couldn’t afford. Will this be the end of her tenure? If it isn’t, will changes be made to a squad that is clearly lacking in certain aspects?

Those are questions for after Saturday, when India play their bronze medal match against either Japan or South Korea.

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