India will face one of their toughest tests in defence when they square off against the marauding Belgians in what promises to be a robust semifinal clash of the FIH Hockey World League Semifinals on Friday.
The encounter will test the ability of India’s defence to guard against the Belgian strikers, who have tasted enormous success in the past couple of years to boost their world ranking to No. 4 — the highest in their hockey history.
Ranked No. 9 in the world, India faces a formidable side that has enjoyed a slight edge in their recent encounters since the 2011 Champions Challenge final in Johannesburg.
The Belgian players have, in fact, made giant strides in international hockey.
Starting with the victory in the Champions Challenge that earned Belgium their maiden entry in the elite Champions Trophy, the Red Lions have emerged victorious in their fixtures against India in the 2012 Olympic Games and the 2014 World Cup.
India have managed to overcome the Belgian challenge in successive Champions Trophy encounters in Melbourne and Bhubaneswar.
“Playing Belgium suits our game. Belgium play a structured game and we’re ready for this contest,” said India coach Paul van Ass, bracing to take on the higher-ranked Belgium.
Van Ass said his team usually found Asian teams to be tougher rivals. It was evident yesterday when India were made to work hard for the 3-2 victory by the nippy Malaysian rivals.
It was only two late penalty corner goals from youngster Jasjit Singh that turned the tide in India’s favour in the contest played in soaring heat.
“I thought I was playing an afternoon game during the Indian summer,” said captain Sardar Singh, pleased to have earned a place in the World League Finals that India will host later this year.
Belgium too had to overcome rising temperature in the quarterfinals yesterday, managing to hold off a late resurgence from France to clinch a 5-4 victory.
Belgium, served well by their star player Tom Boon and captain John-John Dohmen, were down to nine players in the last minute when they held back a late French challenge to prevail in the highest scoring quarterfinal encounter here.
Van Ass said he was happy that the Indian team was going to play in the showpiece World League Finals as a matter of right, and not just qualify as hosts.
“We’ll be going to the World League Finals as a right, and that’s a big positive for me. This is the first real big tournament we are playing heading into the 2016 Olympics,” said van Ass.
Van Ass recently took up the assignment as India’s chief coach and the only earlier tournament the Indians played under him was the Azlan Shah Cup in Ipoh two months ago, where the team finished third.
In the other semifinal, World champions Australia will take on Great Britain.