London: India have a great opportunity to make it to the gold medal match of the Hero Champions Trophy and thereby aim for their first-ever title in the almost four decade history of the elite competition, which began way back in 1978.
India goalkeeper PR Sreejesh
Though Australia are streets ahead of India in terms of World ranking — the Aussies are tops as compared to India's seventh position — but the Indians can take heart from the win they achieved against them in a Test at home, ahead of the World Hockey League Finals in Raipur. Nikkin Thimmaiah, who clearly loves big matches and has scored time and again against Korea in crucial games, also had a hat-trick against Australia at the 2015 Azlan Shah, when the Indians emerged winners, but that was an experimental team from the World No 1 side.
More recently, the Australians twice beat India at the Azlan Shah in Ipoh a couple of months back. Australia beat India 5-1 in the league game at Azlan Shah and then 4-0 in the final.
India coach, Roelant Oltmans, who has expressed satisfaction at the progress ahead of the Olympics, said, "Our goal was a medal at the Champions Trophy to begin with. So, we should try that and we are still in the hunt for that. As for the match against Australia, it is a very tough outing. We have to produce our best performance to put up a good contest."
He added, "I'm happy that our game has improved with every tournament."
On Tuesday night after India's narrow 2-1 win over Korea, Australia beat Belgium to extend their lead and are now at 10 points from four games. Then a fourth quarter penalty corner from Ashley Jackson earned Great Britain the draw against Germany and kept alive their chances of reaching the competition final. But that result knocked Germany out of contention for a place in the final.
India have seven points and Britain have five. Belgium, with four, still have a chance to get into final, if Australia beat India and Belgium beat Britain by a big margin to move up on goal difference.
A win over Australia will guarantee India a place in the final, something they have never achieved in Champions Trophy. India's best has been third in 1982 and they have been fourth on six occasions.
Great Britain and Belgium clash in the last league engagement but after the Australia-India fixture. If Australia beat India, hosts Britain will just need a win over Belgium to overtake India on points, as the hosts have a better goal difference. But Belgium too can finish second on goal difference if they prevail in this match.
India has a great chance to meet Australia twice in two days and that would be a great experience ahead of the Rio Games. But India need to be careful against conceding too many penalty corners, as they did in first three games, but against Korea they gave away none.
Australia's worry is penalty corner specialist Chris Ciriello's fitness, but India's VR Raghunath and Harmanpreet Singh have also had limited success. The Indian forwards will need to jell and make more opportunities count and PR Sreejesh, normally the "Great Wall" for India will need to be more consistent than some of his recent outings.
"We had a lot of chances up front but we couldn't convert", said India striker Manpreet Singh of the match against Korea, but he also added, "I think overall our team performance was very good because we conceded a goal late but in the next minute we hit back with a goal of our own."
Yet, overall this Indian team without Sardar Singh, has done a great job so far and a place in the final will be the icing on the cake.