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Rajendra Prasad Mohapatra

High-flying hosts and defending champions India colts would be banking on their solid defensive build-up and drag-flicking prowess to outsmart six-time title-winners Germany in the semifinal of the FIH Junior Men’s Hockey World Cup at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar on Friday.

After a disappointing start in the tournament with a 4-5 loss to France, India lifted their game by few notches to qualify for their second consecutive semifinal in the mega tournament.

The hosts produced a defensive master-class on Wednesday to eke out a narrow solitary goal win over European giants Belgium with the likes of Yashdeep Siwach, deputy skipper Sanjay and Shardanand Tiwai shining bright in the backline. India’s two custodians-- Prasanth Chauhan and Pawan were terrific against the Red Lions. They produced some breath-taking saves to deny scoring opportunities to their opponents. With four quality penalty corner specialists like Sanjay, Tiwari, Araijeet Singh Hundal, and Abhishek Lakra in their ranks, India’s strength lies in conversion and it has been quite evident in the competition so far.

India’s winning goal against Belgium came from a penalty corner through Tiwari which was brilliantly set up by Sanjay who remains the best bet for India against the mighty Germans. He has already registered back-to-back hat-tricks against France and Poland in the pool stages. The hallmark of India’s performance against Belgium was the calm and composed mindset of the young and energetic players when put under pressure and chief coach Graham Reid too accepted the fact.

“Our defense was much better than our first game against France. We did a lot of work on it. Calmness normally comes from being prepared. If you are prepared that helps. I think this kind of approach will keep us in good stead for the next important stages of the tournament,” said Reid.

Against Belgium, Uttam Singh was a livewire upfront, showing his wide range of skills by twisting and turning the ball to create many opportunities. But Hundal and Bobby Singh Dhami need to be more creative in their manoeuvring skills. Skipper Vivek Sagar Prasad, who has been a part of India’s historic bronze medal-winning campaign at the Tokyo Olympics, continued to shine in the midfield with his calming influence.

But the mighty Germans would be a tough nut to crack as they would be aiming to reclaim their World Champion title after a hiatus of eight years. Germany last won the Junior World Cup title in 2013 in New Delhi. But since then, a third-place finish in the last edition in Lucknow in 2016 was the best they could achieve.

Reid acknowledged Germany’s fighting spirit at this level. “You should never write a tough team like Germany off even in the last few seconds. They are a class team and they have proven it again and again over the years. Indian players have to be on their toes all the time throughout the match to pose them any kind of challenge,” said Reid.

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