The Indian men's hockey team will return to top-level international competition after more than a year when it takes on Olympic champions Argentina in the first match of the two-game FIH Pro League tie in Buenos Aires on Saturday. (More Hockey News)
After being stuck at their base at the Sports Authority of India, Bengaluru centre for the entire last year during the coronavirus outbreak, the Indians will finally get to play high-intensity international matches.
India played their last FIH Hockey Pro League match against Australia in February last year in Bhubaneswar.
The Indians are currently fifth in the FIH Pro League standings with 10 points from six games, with two wins and as many loses and draws.
World champions Belgium are atop the standings with 32 points from 13 games, followed by Germany (19 points from 8 matches), Netherlands (18 from 11) and Australia (14 from 8).
The Indians couldn't have asked for a better timing for their return to top-flight international hockey as the upcoming Pro League matches against some tough opponents will provide them valuable match practice ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, which is little more than three months away.
They resumed international hockey in February this year when they embarked on a tour of Europe, where they played out two draws and registered two victories in their four games against Germany and Great Britain.
Those games were planned to help the Indian men's hockey team prepare well for the postponed Tokyo Olympics.
But it is the top-notch FIH Pro League matches that will help India to judge where they stand ahead of the Tokyo Games, beginning on July 23.
This time, the opponents are Argentina, and the matches will be played in the iconic Cernard Stadium here on Saturday and Sunday.
The Indians had a good build up to the two-match tie having defeated Argentina 4-3 before drawing 4-4 in the two practice games.
There were plenty of encouraging signs for India's chief coach Graham Reid as skipper Manpreet Singh, Varun Kumar and Rupinder Pal Singh were on target despite being out of action for lengthy periods.
The forwards, in particular, impressed and created a lot of goalmouth opportunities. Mandeep Singh, Nilakanta Sharma and Dilpreet Singh had good outings.
But, Reid stressed the importance of the defence being frugal. In both the practice games, Argentina managed to make their way back in the contest after India's rapid start.
Skipper Manpreet, however, is satisfied with performance of his side in the two practice games and feels they need to utilise every opportunity that come their way ahead of the Olympics.
"Both practice matches were good. They were hard-fought games and quite intense," Manpreet said.
"Having missed match practice for much of last year, we have to cash in on the opportunities we get. It is good for us that we are tested against a tough opponent like Argentina.
"In both the games, we showed a lot of fight and created loads of chances. But we could have scored even more whilst conceding fewer goals. We are working hard to be more compact at the back and being more ruthless going forward," the 28-year-old added.
Manpreet is also relishing the prospect of wearing the captain's armband again.
"Yes, last year was a difficult time for all of us. We had played very good hockey in the initial round of the FIH Pro League games against tough opponents such as Belgium, Netherlands and Australia," he said.
"We worked hard in our training camps and tried our best to recreate the intensity of a high-stake international match. That is why the upcoming matches are so important to us."
Manpreet refused to read much into Argentina's recent slump in form.
"Argentina are a quality side and we have had some good matches against them over the years. We need to focus on our game. Like I said, each match we play is a learning experience."
Having suffered twin defeats against Germany last week, the pressure, though, will be on the hosts. The losses pushed the Argentines to the sixth place in the FIH Pro League table below India.