Seasoned Sreejesh, drag-flick experts could help India spring a surprise in Tokyo

India would need to win at least two matches in the knockouts to ensure a podium finish in Tokyo. Hockey India

Ahead of the 2020 Olympics, we take a look at the Indian men's hockey team -- the key players, their recent form, and what to expect from them in Tokyo.

Who are the best players?

His reflexes aren't quite what they were five years ago, but PR Sreejesh continues to be key for India, as he was at the Rio Olympics. Sreejesh has been among the best goalkeepers in the world over the last decade, and his consistency will be critical, especially in the crunch games.

Another crucial player is Rupinder Pal Singh -- India invariably do well when he fires, both with his trademark drag-flicks, as well as when he pulls his weight in defence. In a team with 10 Olympic debutants, Rupinder Pal and his defensive colleague Harmanpreet Singh will bring both venom off short corners, as well as the calm experience of having played at the biggest stage in the past.

What is India's style of play?

Under previous coaches Roelant Oltmans, Sjoerd Marijne and Harendra Singh, India had become a compact defensive unit, and Harendra's successor Graham Reid has worked hard to make them a well-rounded team, capable of outscoring the opposition.

This was evident during the last FIH Pro League, where Covid's second wave and the travel restrictions that followed prevented India from playing more than eight games, but India looked like a team that could score more frequently.

India, now fourth in the world, play with a judicious mix of traditional subcontinental flair -- dribbling, pace along the flanks -- married with the pragmatism of short passes and collective movements up and down the pitch, more commonly associated with European teams.

What are the team's strengths?

When this team gets on top of the opposition, they can pull away on the scoreboard, as they showed in beating Netherlands, Belgium and Argentina during the Pro League. India's eight matches played were the least in the latest cycle, but their 22 goals scored represented the third-best goals per game average after Australia and Belgium.

The team to Tokyo comprises a backline where four out of five members -- Amit Rohidas and Birendra Lakra to add to Rupinder Pal and Harmanpreet -- are adept at drag-flicks. The firepower in short corners will keep India interested in matches right till the end of the fourth quarters.

They start in Tokyo against New Zealand, and a comfortable win there could set them up for a memorable campaign..

Where can they get hurt?

Reid has picked a slightly raw forward line, where Mandeep Singh is the only player with prior Olympic experience, and Lalit Upadhyay is the only other member of the attack with over a 100 caps.

This may not in itself be a bad thing -- players like Gurjant Singh and Dilpreet Singh have made promising starts to their international careers -- but chances against teams like Australia, Belgium and Netherlands, all ranked higher than India, will be hard to come by, and India will need to put everything away.

Who are India's toughest opponents?

Australia have long been India's nemeses in big events, but over the last five years, India have also slipped up in knockout games against Belgium (2016 Olympics) and Netherlands (2018 World Cup).

Are India in form?

Yes, and no. Their recent match results have included some significant gains, including a rare win against Australia via shootout. However, Covid has meant India have played the least competitive hockey among the major hockey nations. That, combined with the young nature of the squad, makes it quite hard to gauge the team's form. They should show spirit and spunk, but if they flatter to deceive after bossing the group stages, it wouldn't be an outlier from how multi-nation events have gone for them in the past five years.

Can the team win a medal?

India would need to win at least two matches in the knockouts to ensure a podium finish, with bronze medal playoff a necessity for teams that fall at the semifinals.

India should be favoured for a top-two finish from their group, and that would probably mean any two of Belgium, Netherlands, Germany or Great Britain in the last eight and last four. Unlike Australia, whose natural attacking play is something that has often overrun India in big matches in the past, the European teams tend to frustrate India with their varied tempo and organised defensive structures.

Reid's young team have to show the maturity to ride out such phases and find their way to goals to emerge on top in such games. If they can do that, a ninth gold may also not be entirely out of question. Certainly, a bronze medal looks within this team's grasp.