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'Against Pakistan we give 200%' - Dominant India wary of surprise from attack-minded Pakistan

India's Mandeep Singh (in blue) takes on two Pakistan players during the bronze medal match in Jakarta at the 2018 Asian Games. AP Photo/Aaron Favila

The last time Pakistan played a full-strength Indian side in India was in 2014. A late Pakistan winner was followed by unsavoury scenes between the visitors and the crowd at the Kalinga stadium in Bhubaneswar, leading to a few Pakistani players being suspended and jeopardising hockey relations between the two countries.

"We've taken our revenge for 2014 many times after that," India forward Mandeep Singh - who was injured for that match - tells ESPN.

It's true - as the teams prepare for their Asian Champions Trophy match in Chennai on Wednesday, the rivalry between the two is certainly not what it was in 2014. It's been seven years since Pakistan beat India, and even that win in 2016 was against an experimental Indian side at the South Asian Games in Guwahati. Since then, India have played Pakistan 14 times, winning 12 and drawing two.

That stat doesn't play on Mandeep's mind though. Even with India's recent dominance, he said the rivalry remains in the players' heads. "I'm looking forward to it. If we give 100% in other games, against Pakistan we give 200%," he said.

Rehan Butt, Pakistan's assistant coach, certainly sees the reality of the situation. "India are ranked 4th in the world, Pakistan are 16th. Our match right now is not at all against them. If these young boys go out there, fight and stand equal against India, that is a win for us as coaches," the ex-forward told ESPN. That is a far cry from his heyday as an international superstar, when the two neighbours contested some fierce battles on turfs around the world.

However, this might not be the mismatch that it seems on paper. Pakistan have played excellent attacking hockey in all four of their matches so far at this tournament, while India have oscillated between extremes. Pakistan have only garnered five points in four matches so far, but there is a strong case that they've been the better side in each of those games -- it's just that the inexperienced side haven't been able to cross the line.

India's focus on consistency and the collective

India's coach Craig Fulton recognized Pakistan's attacking endeavour and the skill of their forwards, saying that one-on-one defending is an area his side would need to improve on. "We need to improve our one-vs-one tackling, but I focus on the collective. How we minimize those situations is crucial," Fulton said.

On the other hand, the South African also stressed the need for combinations in attack. "It's tougher to build a collective attack than one guy just running past everyone. That's what we're working on, for the collective to be strong enough, combine well, and score beautiful goals," he said.

India might be through to the semifinals already, and guaranteed a top-two spot, but Fulton said his side won't be relaxing tomorrow. They've not shown consistency in performances at this tournament so far, so that is a box they'd love to tick before the semifinals, where they could possibly face their neighbours once again. "We want to put in a good performance, take three more points, and momentum into the semifinals," he said.

This is an experienced, battle-hardened Indian team who have had the upper hand over their neighbours in the last few years, but Fulton still emphasized the need to not be fazed by the occasion. "We need to play the game on the occasion, not the occasion itself," he said.

Pakistan look to improve finishing

Pakistan have had the most circle entries for any side at this tournament so far, but have only managed seven goals in their four games so far.

"Our finishing is a clear weakness," acting head coach Muhammad Saqlain said. "We have had 65 circle entries, but not converted our chances. We've shown the players those videos and how they need to improve in those situations," he said.

While acknowledging India's prowess at the moment, and the edge they hold over Pakistan, Saqlain said that his side would continue to play the attacking style they've displayed all tournament. "If we score early in the game and put India under pressure, then who knows what can happen? It's not just us, India will be under pressure as well, so it is important to start well in the first quarter," he said.

While Fulton couldn't stop talking about India's need to play with a structure, Saqlain said India don't have one. "Korea play with a structure, Japan played with a structure against India, India don't play with a structure, they rely only on their physical fitness and penalty corner ability," he said.

And so, it's time for India v Pakistan again.

"It's at home, so we have to win," said Mandeep. Even so far away from its pomp, this is India v Pakistan. There's nothing quite like it.