Lucknow: Mumbai Magicians' magic and Uttar Pradesh wizards' wizardry will be tested to the hilt when the two bottom-placed teams gear up for a final dash as the Hockey India League's (HIL) round-robin phase enters the home straight on Saturday.
The last eight league encounters hold the key to deciding who joins Delhi Waveriders and Ranchi Rhinos in the semis, which leaves Punjab Warriors, Mumbai and UP locked in a three-way battle for the last two spots.
UP (17) and Mumbai (13) are four points apart on the leaderboard at the fourth and fifth place, respectively, with both needing a win to gain some of the lost ground, especially Mumbai who have just one win under their belt so far from 9 matches.
UP got their campaign off to a promising start, including holding favourites Delhi to a 1-1 draw and blanking Ranchi 2-0, but VR Raghunath and Co. have slipped big time towards the latter part of the league phase, struggling now to reach the semis.
Mathematically, UP need to go past their opponents twice in their last four matches, two of which are against the Sandeep Singh-leg Mumbai. If the Sahara-owned team can beat Mumbai in both those matches, they will assure themselves a place in the semis even if they were to lose their other two matches against Delhi.
On Saturday, though, UP will have to stop Sandeep, who is leading the goal-scoring chart with 11 goals off his dreaded penalty-corner strikes. Stopping Sandeep means stopping Mumbai from earning penalty corners for their skipper, and if UP can succeed on that front, they will win 60 percent of the battle.
The remaining 40 percent effort will have to come from UP midfield which has failed to stitch moves and feed the forwards on a regular basis. Also responsibility will be on skipper Raghunath to get his form back on penalty corners strikes after starting the campaign on a promising note but losing consistency as the tournament progressed.
Consolation points (teams losing by a margin of 2 or less goals earn 1 point) have kept Mumbai in the hunt. But with one less match in hand than UP, who have four to play, the Dabur-owned franchise could be left to rub its hands in the end. That also means Mumbai not only have to beat UP in both the matches, but also upset Ranchi to keep their hopes alive. But for a first, they have to win on Saturday with lots depending on Sandeep.
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