Champions Trophy Hockey 2018: Lack of structure, poor defence cost India against Olympic silver medallists Belgium
India missed their chances and squandered a chance to better their abysmal recent record against Belgium. But for skipper PR Sreejesh, the scoreline could have been much worse.
Look past the 1-1 score-line and it would seem that in the fourth quarter, the Indian defence had taken a leave of absence, handing over the reins to captain-goalkeeper PR Sreejesh. Belgium pressed as if their lives depended on it. Till the 58th minute, it was 1-0 to India. They survived, perched on the edge of a cliff.
Time and again, Belgium showed their wares and wove intricate skills inside the Indian circle. India's defenders, lurching like drunk men, kept giving the ball away to Belgian sticks. Panic was the order. The composure that helped against Argentina was nowhere to be seen. If a defender gave space, Belgium took a shot; Sreejesh saved. If there was no space, they created a penalty corner — five in the last quarter alone. Off the 10th they struck. Yet again a defender was missing on the line. Sreejesh stretched but the ball squeezed itself into the corner as Belgium finally had the equaliser.
India were still teetering on the edge when Belgium got their 11th PC. By now, all they could do was pray that somehow the ball eludes the goal. Sreejesh was there and he saved. In the final quarter, it wouldn’t have surprised anyone if the scoreboard had flashed Sreejesh vs Belgium,
At the hooter, Belgium could only wonder why they didn't get past Sreejesh in the fourth quarter. India will walk away with the regret of not having closed the match when the chances and opportunities came their way in the first two quarters. Structure, an intrinsic part of good teams when in the attack and defence mode, had gone up in smoke in the last quarter. In the end, the scoreline could be looked at two ways: India are moving up, slowly and steadily, or they still need a lot of work if the Asian Games and the World Cup are realistic targets.
From the coach’s point of view, the fourth quarter, usually the pressing point for a team that is chasing, was fantastic for Shane McLeod and a disaster for Harendra Singh. Belgium had 78.2 percent possession in those 15 minutes. It’s understandable that a team can panic; big teams do it too. But with ball players who have aerial skills, it was a wonder why India didn’t play on the lines with two forwards upfront.
If nine defenders can’t defend, an extra two wouldn’t be of much of help. “Yes, I admit that we played extremely poor hockey in the fourth quarter,” Harendra said. “The boys panicked and when they should have been holding the ball, they gave away turnovers and shot straight to Belgian sticks in the midfield.”
You could say India were lucky to get away with a 1-1 draw. But the showing in the first two quarters was top draw, and India should have scored a couple of more goals. Dilpreet, Mandeep and SV Sunil had opportunities that should have been put away. There were five PCs in the first two quarters as against three for Belgium. Harmanpreet fired in the second PC, the ball deflecting off Vincent Vanasch’s stick.
Belgium gave away the ball quite a bit in the second quarter and India used that to their advantage. In the middle of it, Sardar did a turnaround and slipped in a beauty for Sunil who sprinted, trapped and then was in two minds. The soft tap was cleared away by the Belgian defenders. Vivek, who also had his moments in the first half, created quite a few moves and once, off his splendid run from the right, saw the ball come to Mandeep but the delay ensured that Belgium cleared.
Harendra agrees that India should have closed the match early. “We had our chances,” he says. “But we need to close. In modern hockey, creating is itself a big deal and somehow, we have to find the answers to that quickly.” But more than that, the Indian coach was disappointed with the defending overall.
Mandeep had a chance off a cross from the right. And even the Argentine umpire had pointed towards a goal and then when challenged by a Belgian defender blew for a stick-check. Mandeep had wheeled away celebrating what he thought was a legitimate goal. The team too rejoiced. Belgium taking advantage of the moment countered and Sreejesh saved at the other end. No Indian player had the presence of mind to ask for a referral.
Even after the counter, the referral would have counted. A team usually gets ten seconds to refer. At that stage, it could have turned into a goal. Or at least the game would have stopped giving the Indians a little time to regroup. “I agree that the education in terms of technical points needs to happen,” says Harendra. “They should have gone for a referral.” On the replays, it didn’t look like a stick-check, rather a nudge before Mandeep scored goal. But even the bench with Chris and Harendra could have alerted the referral.
Sreejesh brought off at least seven saves, straight from the blade of the Belgians. But in that second and third quarters, Surender Kumar saved once on the line and once deflected a ball headed straight for his body and a possible stroke in the offing. Manpreet Singh put huge amounts of energy into the match, colliding, getting hit, almost like a boxer in the ring. He also stopped three PCs.
Belgium were unlucky to see John-John Dohmen’s flick hit the post and go out. Similarly, Mandeep’s flick in the second quarter after India had taken the lead headed straight for goal but Vincent threw himself, more out of hope, and the ball shaved his shoulder, kissed the post and went out.
There were moments of brilliance in India’s play. Dilpreet’s switching and Jarmanpreet’s errors combined with his attacking play. Chinglensana attacked in his customary style, sweeping in through the midfield giving some wonderful balls into the circle. Twice, he had the space for a shot at the goal but Vanasch saved.
In the end, it was the fourth quarter that stood out. A more structured Indian team could have held off the Belgians. But more importantly, an ultra-defensive attitude gave heart to the Belgians to attack knowing India will not counter. That was the mistake and the loss of two points might even snatched away a place in the final.
If the stats were shared in the first three quarters, it was only in the fourth that the overall shots on target stood at 15 for India and 26 for Belgium. Varun Kumar felt that the pressure was a lesson. “We know the mistakes we committed today,” he said. “And we are sure we won’t do that again.”
Harendra Singh would look at the last 20 matches that India have played against Belgium and shake his head at the facts that stare back — 15 losses with five wins and no draws. On Thursday, in the 21st match, he has a draw. There is, however, always a silver lining; India played against the Olympic silver-medallists, and for three quarters, held their own. In the final quarter, it was a tactical issue, probably of communication between the bench and players. Harendra will probably ensure that it never happens again. But it’s sport. Fans would also be perplexed with Pakistan’s 4-1 win over Olympic champions Argentina.
With a day’s rest, India play hosts Netherlands who are on six points with India on 7. Australia top the table with ten points after beating the Dutch 3-1. Harendra says the team will go all out for a win. Sometimes, despondency can even infiltrate after a tough draw. Harendra would ensure that the podium is kept in sight.
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