New Delhi: By design or by accident, India are playing France Sunday in a match that matters the most in the men`s hockey qualifiers here for the 2012 London Olympics. Psychologically, the hosts will be going into the final in a happy frame of mind, having swamped the French 6-2 in the round-robin.
India, eight times Olympic gold medallists, suffered a heart-break in 2008 when they lost to Great Britain in the final round of the Beijing Games qualifiers held in Santiago, Chile, and missed playing in the Olympics for the first time in eight decades.
This time the players look determined and have played exceptionally well in all the five league games to emerge the only team to remain unbeaten with 15 points. They have been the dominating force and have pumped in 36 goals conceding eight.
They will fondly remember their match against France, ranked 18 in the world, on the eve of their final as they won that game 6-2. The French were no match for India, who are the highest-ranked team in the tournament at No.10.
But the final will be a totally different game.
The French, who are desperate to qualify for the Olympics for the first time since 1972, shockingly held higher-ranked Canada, World No.14, to a 1-1 draw on their way to the final. It was a spirited performance by the French and they will be out to plug loopholes that led to their league defeat. They will try to give a much better performance, but not many will be wagering on them to win.
If the Indians had one drawback that is their lack of proper finishing. For all their attacking game, they just could not finish. For all their brisk running and understanding upfront, the forwards were aimless when it came to finding the target. One lost the count of chances they missed in the tournament.
India coach Michael Nobbs wants his forwards to take their own time before taking the final shot.
"Our forwards have been going hard at every ball. They should take some time before taking a shot," said Nobbs, especially referring to S.V. Sunil.
Sunil has been quick on the right, but due to poor finishing he has squandered quite a few goal-scoring opportunities.
Nobbs is concerned about India`s finishing.
"We have been the best team in the tournament, but we have been poor in finishing. The final will be tough," he said.
While veteran Dilip Tirkey held special sessions to sort out the defensive lapses, Nobbs said the area still remains a concern. The Indian defence remained hardly tested in the tournament and most of the eight goals they conceded were too soft.
"I am not too happy with the penalty-corners and we will practice that aspect of the game," Nobbs said.
India`s ace drag-flicker Sandeep Singh has been in great form and is the leading scorer of the qualifiers with 11 goals, all from penalty corners. But the other two penalty-corner specialists V. Raghunath and Rupinder Pal Singh have failed to match Sandeep. Against Poland, India earned nine penalty corners but could convert just three.
Nobbs, however, is confident of India`s success in the final.
"It is not going to be easy in the final against France, probably, a much tighter game than the one we won comfortably. I am sure it would be pretty tight," he said.