Hockey: Rani Rampal in attack, tighter defence key for India against favourites Australia

The Indian team members congratulate Vandana Katariya (third from left) after she scored her first goal against South Africa. Hockey India

The Indian women's hockey team fronts up against a strong Australian side in their maiden outing at an Olympics knockout game, in a quarterfinal scheduled for 8:30 am IST on Monday.

On paper, this appears a bridge too far for India, who have already won as many Olympic matches over the last two days in July as they had done before, in their third outing at the Games. However, in knockout hockey, all established wisdom goes out of the window, and both teams will be aware of that fact.

So how is the match expected to pan out? Who are the key players worth watching out for in each side?

Saturday's action | Friday's recap | Key dates | Athletes | Medal tracker | Full schedule | Latest results

Key storylines

India have shown great fortitude in coming back from three defeats to start their Tokyo campaign, which have pushed them from ninth to 12th in the FIH rankings. However, they were drawn to face Netherlands, Germany and Great Britain, all three medallists at Rio 2016. Up against Ireland and South Africa, opposition more in their range, Rani Rampal and her team raised their game, particularly as an offensive unit, to get the right results and finish fourth in their group.

Whether they can carry that same efficiency against the three-time champions will be key. Australia were expected to compete with Argentina for top spot in what looked like a lighter pool, and while they did finish on top, it came with a few tight wins after starting with 3-1 against Spain and a 6-0 walloping of China. Crucially, hosts Japan, who had narrowly edged out India to the Asian Games gold in 2018, kept Australia down to just a 1-0 win. Nevertheless, Australia enter this match with a perfect record in the group stages

Where will the match be won?

India simply have to defend better than what they have done through most of this tournament. There were some elementary errors in the first three matches -- inability to close down angles on strikers, conceding penalty corner (PC) opportunities, cards with ill-timed tackles and sluggish movements in the defensive third -- that resurfaced during the 4-3 win against South Africa. Goalkeeper Savita Punia has begun coming into her own, but needs her colleagues to support her more consistently.

If India are to frustrate Australia and extract some errors on the counter, it won't be the first time that this would have happened. At the Gold Coast Games, Australia beat India in the semi-finals with a Grace Stewart goal, but India's defensive grit led to some openings at the other end. For Australia, scoring early will go a long way towards allowing the game to open up and play to their own strengths.

Players to watch

She's already scored once in this tournament, and set up another couple of strikes, but Rani Rampal will be itching to make this big stage her own. Australia would be expected to dominate possession and tempo, but when the odd ball breaks for India, their captain is sure to find herself at the end of at least two or three half-chances. With her quality, converting those wouldn't be out of the question.

India must be wary of striker Emily Chalker, the most capped player in this Australian team. Chalker has scored in all but one game for her side, and struck the decisive blow in a 1-0 win against New Zealand.

Numbers game

  • India and Australia have only met once at the Olympics, with Australia winning 6-1 in the group stages in Rio. Six of the current Australian played that match, while there are eight Indian survivors from the Rio squad. Of the goalscorers that day, only Australia's Jane Claxton is part of the squads.

  • Vandana Katariya's hat trick, the first for Indian women at the Olympics, is also the only one in women's hockey at these Games thus far.

  • Since Beatriz Perez scored against them for Spain, Australia have now gone 267 minutes at these Olympics without conceding a goal. No team among the 24 in the field -- men's and women's hockey -- have conceded as few as Australia's solitary goal.

  • India have never won three matches in a row in women's hockey at the Olympics. With the wins over Ireland and South Africa, they have matched their feat in 1980, when they beat Austria and Poland to get their campaign running. However, they then lost 1-2 to Czechoslovakia, the eventual silver medallists.