In the face of formidable challenges, the focus is on penalty-corner specialist Sandeep Singh

Amidst the fret and fever of speculation, India is poised to set the ball rolling on Monday against the Netherlands in the men’s hockey competition. If wishes were horses India would be riding to the podium. But stark reality stares at the Indian team.

Everything rests on performance. Then expectations can be met.

There is a filament of optimism in aiming for a sixth spot; a realistic assessment. But India is notorious to under-perform and flop when expectations soar.

It is indisputable the team is well trained, properly balanced, meticulously coached and enjoyed enormous exposure in the last eight months. Tested and tried against all the leading outfits, save for the Netherlands, the opponent today in pool B, the players are battle ready.

Michael Nobbs deserves plaudits. His is pragmatic and not prone to hyperbole.

His goal of a sixth place is definitely not a sign of pessimism.

Placed in the group which includes the defending champion, Germany, and former gold medallists, the Netherlands and New Zealand, with the usually unpredictable Korea and Belgium, the challenges confronting India are formidable.

Is the squad geared up to face them? The answer is “yes” if the performance level goes notches higher and stays at that plane throughout.

Poor consistency rate

A detailed investigation of the record will, however, show the bane is one of appalling consistency rate.

While the overall strength of the defence cannot be portrayed as exemplary, the composition of the mid-field generates a veneer of assurance.

Here everything centres on Sardar Singh, one of the top pivots in contemporary hockey, and his co-ordination with Gurbaj Singh on the right, and Birendra Lakra on the left.

The focus, perhaps rightly so, is on Sandeep Singh as the penalty-corner specialist. But how many will India obtain rests on the fluency and finesse of attack in the hands of seasoned Shivendra, Tushar, Chandi and Sunil.

So, it all boils down to the link among the layers, defence, mid-field and attack.

While India has played against all its group opponents recently, it has not faced the Dutchmen since 2010. It is yet to win a game since 1996.

Overview

An overview of the contestants from the perspective of medal chances presents a fascinating vista.

The Netherlands, winner of the back-to-back gold in Atlanta and Sydney, with Germany are viewed as possible semifinal qualifiers from Pool B. Under coach Peter van Ass, the Dutchmen look up to the experience and élan of the iconic Teun de Nooijer.

Perfectly balanced

Germany is perfectly balanced. Coach Marcus Weiss has an assembly of extraordinary talent in skipper Maximillian Mueller, and awesome strikers in the Zeller brothers, Christopher and Philip, ably supported by Matthias Witthaus.

On form, the Kiwis are feared most.

The recent Azlan Shah tournament underlined their potential to break the rhythm of any.

The Koreans and the Belgians chugged along after overcoming several hurdles with resilience and equanimity to be in London.

The Aussie dream of an Olympic gold dawned in 2004. A real powerhouse by any yardstick, Australia is tipped to scoop the gold. Only plain bad luck can halt its march.

Ric Charlesworth, acknowledged the best brain in coaching and Jamie Smith, accepted as the outstanding wielder of the hockey stick along with the penalty hitter Christopher Cierello, hold the cards for the redoubtable Australians.

Home favourite

The challenge, if there can be one for Australia, stems from the Britons.

On home turf and before a supportive audience, the coach Jason Lee and his men are passionate to regain the gold it won in 1988 in Seoul.

In Ashley Jackson, Matt Daly and Richard Smith, Britain has a clutch of match-winners.

Chasing the elusive gold is Spain, silver medallist in Beijing, under ace flicker Santi Freixa, while Pakistan, led by the ageing Sohail Abbas, is fighting against odds to regain its identity.

What Argentina has for its opponents under the cloak of unpredictability is hard to guess. Peter Lombi (coach) and Mathias Vila are busy scripting the plot.

The emerging sequence for a swing in the power alignment is sure to enthral the game’s aficionados.

More In: Hockey | Sport