On-a-roll India face tough French test

New Delhi: Their campaign well on track after massive wins in the opening two matches, the Indian men`s hockey team faces its first big test of the tournament when it takes on an impressive but less-than-formidable France in the Olympic Qualification tournament here on Tuesday.

Both India and France have made an impressive start to the tournament, winning their first two games but the hosts are ahead on goal difference even though both the teams have six points each.

After the 15-1 and 8-1 thrashing of minnows Singapore and Italy respectively, eight-time Olympic champions India will play their first tough match in the tournament when they square up against France at the floodlit Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium.

From here on, there won`t be any easy matches for the Indians as in Poland and Canada, tougher rivals await them in the competition.

In the opening two games, the Indians have toyed with Singapore and Italy`s defence and scored at will and the home team would be hoping to continue the goal-scoring spree against France too.

If the Singapore match was all about India`s forwards, the game against Italy yesterday belonged to their drag-flickers -- Sandeep Singh and V R Raghunath.

Against Italy, India converted four out of five penalty corners with Sandeep striking thrice and Raghunath finding the target once.

India`s forwardline too was not to be left behind as it scored as many as four field goals against Italy.

After a timid show against Singapore, Sandeep stole the limelight against Italy with three powerful dragflicks and the lanky defender would be aiming to carry on his form in the remaining matches of the tournament to achieve his milestone of 12 goals in the event.

Upfront, Gurvinder Singh Chandi and S V Sunil have been outstanding in the tournament so far, scoring four goals each from two outings. Experienced striker Shivendra too has utilised the limited chances he got but young Yuvraj Walmiki has failed to show spark in the tournament.

Sardar Singh continues to remain India`s hero in the mid-field but India coach Michael Nobbs would be a little concerned about his defensive line as they conceded two soft goals against both Singapore and Italy.

Veteran Ignace Tirkey-led Indian backline will have to be more vigilant in the remaining three matches of the pool if they are to realise the dream of playing in the London Olympics, especially after the ignominy of missing out on a place in 2008 Beijing Games.

Nobbs too admitted that despite the massive wins, his team is yet to reach its peak in the tournament.

"This is not our peak. We have to peak at the right time. Two difficult matches are coming up against France and Poland. We have to take one match at a time," the Australian had said.

Even though France (18th) lie way below India (10th) in the world rankings, Tuesday’s match won`t be a cakewalk for the hosts as in their first two encounters the Frenchmen have showed that they are here not just to make up the numbers.

France defeated Poland 2-1 and then mauled Singapore 9-0 in their first two matches and would be eyeing an upset win against favourites India to boost chances of qualifying for the Olympics after a long wait of 40 years.

The French hockey team last played in the Olympics way back in 1972 Munich Games.

A victory against India would boost`s France pre-tournament goal of reaching at least the final of the qualifiers.

"India are favourites and will be a strong side to beat at home. But reaching the final is our goal. It`s been long time since we played in the Olympics," France captain Arnaud Becuwe had said.