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Red Lions wary of resurgent blue

CHENNAI: Belgium coach Shane McLeod is licking his lips at the prospect of watching the Red Lions face India in the upcoming batch of Pro League fixtures in Bhubaneswar this weekend. “We are looking forward to the two games,” he says. “Not only because we are going to a place that saw us winning the World Cup. But because we will be playing India who are looking extremely sharp at the moment. We saw what they did against The Netherlands and I’m excited to see how we stack up against a quality side.”
Captain Thomas Briels sang from the same hymn sheet. “Whenever we have played them, they have always come across as a fast counterattacking side. But, in recent times, they have looked solid at the back as well as being a more rounded outfit.”

It’s also why the two games will offer more clues as to where India are in terms preparedness in an Olympic year. As impressive as they were against the Dutch, the big challenge will be in getting that consistency going. The last time these two sides met, India beat Belgium 3-0 in a three-match series at Belgium (September 2019).

However, that result will count for little as that was not the full-strength side. “That was a developmental squad that played India, so I don’t think it’s right to talk about that result,” McLeod says. “We are coming with almost a full-strength squad so this is more of an even contest.” The New Zealander, though, concedes that he won’t lose sleep if the World No 1 end up losing to the hosts. “I think all sides will be looking at the matches in the Pro League to fine-tune their Olympic preparations. While the matches will be of a high quality and there will be pressure, I don’t think you can read too much into the results because of what’s about to come in six months’ time.”

For Briels, focus will be on tactics and continuing to evolve the playing style. “We will want to work on our technique and also how we go about our press in certain off the ball situations… the ultimate aim is to become a winning machine that culminates with a medal at the Olympics.” Since the World Cup win in 2018, Belgium also claimed the European Championships for the first time in their history. So, in a sense, they have already become a machine. The question for the weekend, though, is a different one. Will they be able to prove that India’s new found confidence was misplaced?

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