Hockey: Men face minnows Russia, women US test

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Hockey: Men face minnows Russia, women US test
India beat Russia 10-0 the last time they met in the Olympic qualifiers in June.

One will face a team that finished fifth at the Rio Olympics, and fourth at the 2014 World Cup. The other will be up against the lowest-ranked side in the draw that was included in it barely 24 hours before it took place.

The Indian women and men’s hockey teams were, on Monday, handed contrasting paths to the Tokyo Games. While the women were pitted against a tricky USA, a side ranked just two places below them, the men will play minnows Russia in their quest to seal an Olympics berth. The teams will face off in a winner-takes-all two-match series in Bhubaneswar in early November. The matches will be played in India because, as per the rules, the qualifiers are to be held at the home of the higher-ranked team.

Both Indian teams find themselves in the qualifying draw after they failed to win the Asian Games gold medal last year, which would have secured a direct Olympic berth. While the men’s team could manage just a bronze in Jakarta, the women reached their first final in 20 years but lost to 2020 Games hosts Japan to settle for silver.

Russia, ranked 22 in the world, were not just the lowest-ranked team in the draw held in Lausanne, but were also last-minute entrants. It was only after Egypt withdrew from the qualifiers on Sunday that Russia were included since they were the next highest-ranked team. The lopsided nature of this context can be gauged from the fact that when the two teams met last, in the first round of Olympics qualifiers in June, India spanked Russia 10-0. Graham Reid’s team faced the possibility of being drawn against Pakistan as they were also in the same half; with Austria being the third side. India were among the top three seeded countries along with the Netherlands and Germany, and were up against the three lowest-placed sides. Pakistan, who failed to qualify for the Rio Olympics and looked certain to miss out again next year due to financial troubles, will have to take on the mighty Dutch for a place at the Games.

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While the path looks straightforward for the men’s team, the women’s team will have to dig deep to make a second consecutive appearance at the Olympics. The Rani Rampal-led side ended a 36-year wait in 2016 to return to the Olympic fold but finished last in the 12-team event. They’d met USA in a round robin match, which they lost 3-0. USA eventually lost to Germany in the quarterfinals.

Since then, both teams have sort of undergone a reversal of fortunes. The USA have hit a lean patch, reinforced by their failure to win the Pan-American Championship after claiming gold in the last two editions. Their poor form in the continental tournament, where they eventually settled for bronze, meant they could not book a direct Olympic berth and were forced to go through the tricky business of qualifiers.

Their opponents and hosts India, meanwhile, have shown considerable progress since the Olympics. Coached by Dutchman Sjoerd Marijne, the women have been in the top 10 of the world after spending several years in wilderness. They have also become a dominant force in Asia, where they’ve consistently given China, Japan and South Korea a run for their money. Marijne, in his two stints as coach, has made visible improvements in the team’s strength and fitness, which was apparent in last year’s World Cup where India narrowly missed out on a semifinal berth.

This match will be a battle of equals and will be the pick of the women’s matches along with China vs Belgium. In the men’s draw, the matches between Spain and France, who created a stir at the World Cup, and Great Britain and Malaysia will be keenly contested.

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