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Bhubaneswar, February 7, 2020
India, who commenced their FIH Hockey Pro League campaign on a winning note, defeating the Netherlands in both their matches last month, now face a bigger challenge when they take on World No. 1 side Belgium at the Kalinga Stadium here on Saturday and Sunday.
Forward Gurjant Singh exuded confidence of taking on Belgium since India performed brilliantly during their tour of Belgium last year.
"This is a very crucial time for us. Every match is very important for us. We are coordinating and playing well as a unit. However, we have to ensure that we keep putting up good performances consistently. Each and every player in the team has the Olympics in their mind and we are working towards doing well at the tournament," he said.
"We had a great tour of Belgium last year, we won all our matches there. That result certainly gives us a lot of confidence. All the FIH Hockey Pro League matches will help us prepare for the Olympics.
"All the top teams in the world are playing this tournament. Now the Indian team is performing well. We beat the Netherlands last month, who are ranked third in the world. So the team's morale is quite high at the moment," said Gurjant.
India registered an incredible come-from-behind win against the Netherlands in their second Pro League match in January. The hosts were 1-3 behind and then came back to win the match in the shootout. Gurjant said that such victories give a major boost to the side.
"After such a victory, the team's morale gets a major boost. So one can say that the Indian Men's Hockey Team is a good chaser as well. We can come from behind and win the match and that too against the World No. 3 side. So such victories motivate us as individuals and as a team. It makes the side mentally stronger," said the forward.
"We improving with each match and are working towards a common goal of performing well at the Olympics this year," he added.
Meanwhile, the Belgium team, led by experienced midfielder Thomas Briels, arrived here last night.
Expressing delight at the prospect of playing India at the iconic Kalinga Hockey Stadium, Briels said he's looking forward to playing at the venue where his side lifted the World Cup trophy in 2018.
"It feels really good to be back in the city where we became the World Champions. We have some amazing memories of playing here, and it is always a great spectacle when we step foot onto the turf at the Kalinga Hockey Stadium, so I'm expecting a great round of matches against India, who have also improved massively in the past couple of years," said the 32-year-old.
Having already tasted success in their away matches against former World No. 1 Australia and World No. 8 New Zealand with victories in all four matches, Belgium currently sit atop the points table with 11 points, while India are currently fifth with 5 points from their two matches which they played against the Dutch in January.
Speaking on the importance of playing a competition like this before the Tokyo Olympics, Briels said it serves them well. "I think the Pro League is a really good competition for us to take part in, right before the Olympic Games. It gives us time to prepare ourselves well, and also face tough competition along the way. We have started the competition well, and want to make sure we keep the momentum. The team is really working hard, and we had some hard training sessions in Australia as well before arriving here," said the veteran.
Commenting on opponents India, Briels said he expects a good fight on 8th and 9th February, "India is looking really sharp as well, and they have been playing well which is something we saw in their initial two matches against the Dutch. We expect a tough couple of matches, and it's going to be a good fight for us as well. Of course, we are wary of the threat that they pose, but we are really excited to play a tough opponent like India so we can improve further before the Olympics."
World Cup-winning coach Shane McLeod commented, "We really like playing at the Kalinga Hockey Stadium, it is one of the best in the world, and we have a good record here. We have played 10 times, and have won on eight occasions and drawn two times. We enjoy the crowd being out there, along with the really nice atmosphere which we are expecting again during the match days this weekend."