As they sit down to give the finishing touches to their strategy for Friday's encounter with Spain on the opening day of the FIH Odisha Hockey Men's World Cup 2023 at the Birsa Munda Stadiumin Rourkela, the Indian team will be thinking of their Pro League matches against the same opponents in Bhubaneswar in October-November 2022.
India had lost the first game in the two-game series 2-3 at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar and could only win the second match in a shootout after the teams were tied 2-2 at the end of the regulation 60 minutes.
Those two matches played around 67 days back, must have given Graham Reid and his boys an insight into how tough the World Cup opener against the Red Sticks is going to be. Spain is ranked 8th in the FIH Rankings, just two spots below India and have come up strongly as a team recently after nearly a decade because a generation of players retired from the game.
Friday's encounter is thus very crucial for both teams as winning it will give them a chance to establish an early lead in the Group of Death in which England and Wales are the other opponents.
The Spanish players are known for their flair, skills and attacking prowess. They are one of the most talented and unpredictable teams out there and could prove a big stumbling block for India if the hosts are not at their best on Friday. The Red Sticks have in their ranks electrifying attacker Enrique Gonzalez, experienced midfielder Marc Miralles, classy captain Alvaro Iglesias, Pau Cunill (Rising Star nominee -- FIH Hockey Stars Awards 2021-22) and former Argentina international and 2016 Olympic gold medallist Joaquin Menini.
The hosts on the other hand will bank on their settled squad which has drag-flicker and captain Harmanpreet Singh, a two-time FIH Player of the Year award winner, experienced goalkeeper PR Sreejesh, seasoned midfielder and former captain Manpreet Singh and forwards Akashdeep Singh and Mandeep Singh. Backed by a strong midfield comprising Manpreet Singh, Vivek Sagar Prasad along with youngsters Raj Kumar Pal, Hardik Singh and Shamsher Singh, the Indian squad is well-balanced and capable of matching the top teams in the world.
However, the team is inconsistent and tends to lose focus and their defensive shape under pressure. Conceding late goals is also an issue that has plagued the Indians for a long time. The team, however, has done well in recent times, ending a four-decade medal drought at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 and is hoping to end a 47-year-old wait for a medal at the World Cup.
Against this backdrop and playing a strong opponent, India, winners in the 1975 World Cup -- would bank on two variables that look definitely in their favour --- the support of the huge crowd, that is expected to fill the newly-constructed 20,000-seater Birsa Munda Stadium to the rafters on Monday evening, and also their familiarity and better acclimatization with the weather conditions.
The crowd will be a huge factor in favour of the hosts and the Spaniards are well aware of that.
"We know the stadium in Rourkela is bigger. We know there will be a lot more crowd there. It will be hard to listen to our teammates and the instructions from the referee as well. But it will be an incredibly exciting atmosphere and we are really looking forward to playing here," said Spain skipper Alvaro Iglesias in the pre-match press conference.
India captain Harmanpreet Singh, too, is conscious of this factor and knows that his team will be thriving on the fanatic support it gets in Odisha.
"There is anticipation and excitement in equal measure. As the team bus entered Rourkela city and drove closer to the hockey facility, there were thousands of fans who thronged the streets with Tricolour flags and cheered for us as they welcomed us into their home town. We were simply speechless by the gesture, and it was then that we actually got a sense of how much hockey means to the people of this region," Harmanpreet said.
The Indian captain is also aware of the excitement among the fans and the pressure that it brings but has experienced playing with such crowds during the 2018 World Cup in Bhubaneswar, the Olympic qualifiers in 2019 and the number of Pro League matches they have played in Odisha and therefore confident that his team will thrive in these conditions.
Spain's coach Max Caldas and his India counterpart Graham Reid are aware of each other's tactics and coaching philosophy having coached the Netherlands together -- the Argentine Caldas as head coach and Australian Reid as his assistant. Both have represented their respective countries as players and have vast experience in coaching national teams.
With their teams facing off on Friday, it will also be an opportunity for both coaches to surprise each other.
If the two teams manage to bring out their best, it could be a magical night in Rourkela on Friday. And if India win the match, it will be the perfect start for Graham Reid's team in its quest for their first World Cup medal at home.