It's for a reason that knock-out matches are considered "mind games". And that is exactly why India lost to Belgium on Sunday at the Rio Olympics 2016 hockey quarter-final. India had the lead and believed it might break Belgium. But the Belgians aren't considered the most improved side in world hockey for nothing; they played professional hockey, and used space, patience and a structure that kept pushing India back.
Akashdeep's deflected opening goal gave India hope, but it also brought into focus Belgium's resilience. They broke India down quarter by quarter to record a 3-1 victory and secure a semi-final spot for the first time since 1928. Sebastien Dockier, one of Belgium's superior ball players, decided this was the day he should show off his skills and he constantly slipped past Indian defenders, scoring twice in the 33rd and 44th minute before Tom Boon, having fought back from injury, dealt the death blow with a wonderful angular strike in the 49th minute.
Belgium opened the attacks from the moment the ball rolled. There was a period when India did enjoy territorial parity, with attacks coming in from both midfields, but the sharpness was always with Belgium. Dockier almost came close to scoring, but his tap went off Sreejesh's pads and ballooned out. If India was losing possession, Belgium, held tight, rotating the ball till they found the opening.
India's goal came against the run of play. Manpreet Singh saw a gap in the Belgium striking circle and his hard hit zipped across, with Akashdeep doing enough to put stick to ball and sending it past Belgian goalkeeper Vanasch, who was surprised by the speed. Only 36 seconds were left in the first quarter and India played it out safely.
It was a position India preferred. Instead of chasing the other team, they had Belgium looking for the equaliser. Akashdeep had another chance in the second quarter, when his reverse hit from the top of the circle flashed across Vanasch, missing the post by inches. India was looking for a goal on the counter-attack.
At the other end, Belgian captain John Dohmen missed a shot that beat Sreejesh and glanced by the post. India was holding shape. The defence, though under tremendous pressure, held on with Rupinder Pal, Harmanpreet and Surender trying to tackle the Belgians outside the striking circle. For the first time in the tournament, India didn't have any card till the half time break; Belgium, one of the more disciplined teams at the Olympics, had already picked a green.
At the start of the third quarter, one had a feeling that something would give. Belgium, without panicking, built attacks, rotating till they found a gap which they felt was worth going for a goal. Patience was key for Belgium. They could have rushed in with the Indian defence tackling them well and building a counter-attack. An offensive structure was taking on the defensive one and for the fans, it became an absorbing battle.
Sreejesh was key to India's hopes as he had already brought out two saves. Thomas Briels broke through in the third quarter, but Sreejesh charged out and cleared with his pads. India was soaking up the pressure, but errors were creeping in. It was almost impossible for any team to keep up the defensive posture without any breathing space.
But when Dockier found space in the middle of the striking circle, he outsmarted two Indian defenders and shot towards the Indian goal. The ball bounced awkwardly and went off the outstretched pads of Sreejesh. The equaliser was in for Belgium, their patience was paying off.
Sreejesh soon brought out another save to deny Dockier. He also saved a penalty corner flick. But it was getting tough for India, the pressure was just too high. Another cross from the left flank saw Dockier slipping in his stick to see the ball deflected past Sreejesh's pads again. It was 2-1, and unless India did something different, the match and the momentum were already with Belgium.
At the end of the third quarter, Belgium was like a boxer pummeling an opponent who was back pedalling. India needed belief that they could break Belgium down. But for some reason, they were half-hearted in their attacks. The halves were not moving up and the forwards were just too less in number to crack the Belgian defence. Belgium was marvelously clinical. They had established a rhythm and they circled around in dizzying patterns.
After Sreejesh had saved the third penalty corner, an error in the Indian midfield saw Tom Boon with the ball and trying to muscle past Surender. The Indian defender, instead of hustling him away to the corner of the circle, tried tackling him. Boon slipped the ball through and cracked an angular shot that beat Sreejesh on the right post. At 3-1, it seemed like it was over for India.
With 10 minutes remaining, it was time to gamble. Coach Roelant Oltmans decided to take off Sreejesh and put in an extra player. Raghunath, who had a great match, wore the yellow shirt, and for the 10-odd minutes, he attacked and defended with vigour. One could argue with the decision that India with a penalty corner battery that had done well in the tournament should have attacked with a packed midfield earlier in the third quarter, but it was visible that Belgium dominated every aspect of the game.
For Belgium, the turning point was from the third quarter, where they held and waited for their opportunities. It's amazing to watch Belgium so sure about their technique and ball play. For India, it is bitter frustration and the same old questions. They would also look back at the 2-2 draw with Canada with a lot of regret.
Watching Argentina beat Spain won't help matters either. But an honest assessment is that India held its own with some of the big teams like Germany and Holland. This is a side that apart from a couple of players can remain a committed bunch till the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. In reaching the quarter-finals and playing the way they did in the group games, they have for sure given a sneak preview of the talent at their display. It's time for Hockey India to do a Belgium.