Just when you thought allowing Pakistan back into the match would prove to be a dampener, the Indian defence showed exemplary discipline, built a foundation so tight that Fort Knox looked like sloppy security and then, like a patient vulture, swooped down and killed off the prey with three goals in six minutes. The 4-0 scoreline may look rich, but behind it was the substructure laid by the Indian defenders. Ramandeep marked his comeback into the side with a well-deflected goal in the second quarter, but India then had to contend with an in-form Pakistan goalkeeper Imran Butt who brought off three superb saves.
Pakistan pushed India hard, especially in the third quarter where they enjoyed a 60 percent ball possession. But time and again, Harmanpreet Singh, Birendra Lakra, Amit Rohidas, Varun Kumar and Surender Kumar showed calmness amidst the chaos in the Indian midfield. It was apparent that Pakistan would use the third quarter to press and Surender, along with Lakra and Harman, used the dribble, aerial balls and deft footwork to take away the ball from Pakistan sticks that threatened to find an equaliser and make India’s job difficult.
Things opened up in the 54th minute when a long ball from the defence found Simranjeet Singh. Getting past a Pakistan midfielder, Simranjeet saw acres of space in front and let loose a pass that cleanly cut the defence in half, leaving Muhammad Irfan floundering. Dilpreet trapped the ball on the run and deftly flicked it past a confused and onrushing Pakistan goalkeeper Imran Butt. It was a goal for the ages; combining vision, dexterity and that gift that only a few get, the touch of a born striker. Dilpreet, all of 18, has years to mature and be a true striker.
Two goals up, Pakistan had no option but to open up space between the defence and midfield. Harendra, on the sidelines, would have smacked his lips in glee. The gates were opening up. Patience and the plan of finishing Pakistan was paying off. But then, in a surprising move, Pakistan coach Roelant Oltmans removed the goalkeeper and put in a kicking back. Of course, it’s always a gamble. But with ball players like India’s and a midfield that had started asserting itself, it seemed slightly too early. And the break came off the flank when Mandeep made good of a cross and swept into the Pakistan striking circle from the right and gleefully pushed into an empty goal. At 3-0, the match was dead.
In between the hooter and a split-second early, Ramadeep’s cross found Lalit who deflected it into Pakistan’s goal. A video referral was needed to make sure the goal happened a before the hooter.
Slightly relieved at India's win, Indian coach Harendra said, “I am happy that what we planned, we executed.”
“I have always maintained that if you play a solid defence line, through balls and counter attacks get that much more dangerous.”
But it wasn’t easy in the first three quarters. Oltmans, as promised, used a structure at the back with Muhammad Irfan leading it as a free man. He marshalled the defence, rotated the ball and kept away the Indian forwards. Pakistan’s possession in the first three quarters read 53, 41 and a whopping 60 percent. If India couldn’t close off the match early, it was because they missed two penalty corners in the first two quarters. Flanks were used less and the midfield was sluggish, not using the space to good effect.
India lost quite a kfew balls in and around the space before the Pakistan striking circle. If India struggled in the third quarter, it was because of unforced errors coming off almost all the players — Lakra losing it on the right, Manpreet committing errors while tackling, Simranjeet Singh losing in a one-to-one situation and Sardar’s soft pass going to a Pakistan stick. It built pressure.
Then, it looked like Pakistan had scored in the third quarter, via Ajaz Ahmad. Harmanpreet was the first to turn to the umpire and ask for a video referral. The Indian defender contended that the ball had touched a Pakistan leg before reaching Ahmad. The referral denied the goal and the scoreline was back to 1-0 in India’s favour. Later, Pakistan had a PC but the flick was high and bounced off Amit Rohidas’ shoulder. The umpire had already deemed it as dangerous play.
Pakistan’s press was tight and they ran in from both flanks. India held off the attacks. The defenders were clinical, calm and worked like surgeons, head down. Earlier in the quarter, a lovely move off Manpreet saw the rising hit deflected by Vivek Prasad and Imran Butt had to fling himself to his right to save it. If it had come off, it would have been a spectacular goal. In between, India did miss sharp chances and gave belief to Pakistan that an equaliser could turn the tide.
Oltmans' only hope was to get the goals and bring in uncertainty for the Indian players. That didn’t happen and when the third quarter finished, Pakistan’s tiring legs opened up space in the midfield. Even Sardar ran into the Indian defence to shore things up. Once Harmanpreet lost the ball and as Pakistan attacked, Sardar raced back, stole the ball away and created a counter by a flank pass.
Sreejesh didn’t have much to do except in the first quarter when he made a few saves off Pakistan’s impressive flank runs. Harendra was pleased with the defence but said a winning start is always needed to create momentum.
“In fact, the tournament starts from tomorrow (Sunday),” he said. “We play Argentina, the Olympic Champions and they are a tough cookie. We lost to them in the warm–up match and we will plan better and play to their weakness and strength.”
On the penalty corners, the coach said he wasn’t too perturbed that India missed the two they got but he said, “We need more PC’s to make an impact.”
Almost every player was mobbed by the fans with Sardar getting special treatment. “I have to be thankful to everybody that I am back in the team and that they believed in me,” said Sardar. “The matches with Pakistan are usually a little tense and it was good to get it out of the way.”
Sardar plays his 300th international against Argentina on Sunday, quite a landmark in what is a hugely physical sport. When asked, he merely smiled and said, “The credit goes to the fans, my parents and the coaches.”
Harendra had special praise for Sardar, saying in a time when there is so much hockey and the demands of training are more, it’s remarkable that the former captain is playing his 300th match.
“I salute such players who make it past 300,” said Harendra. With less than 24 hours to go before India take on the Olympic Champions, Argentina, a winning result would be the perfect gravy for an Indian team that would like to celebrate their most experienced player’s landmark match.
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Updated Date: Jun 24, 2018 09:20 AM