Champions Trophy Hockey 2018: Sluggish India fail to convert opportunities to suffer defeat against Australia

Lack of energy, losing possession, giving away crucial turn-overs and that old malady — chances going abegging — hit an Indian team that, despite the close scoreline of 2-3, couldn’t match the World Champions on a day when a win could have given them a sight of the podium.

In the end, they could have miraculously snatched an equaliser when Harmanpreet Singh flicked in a penalty corner, India’s 2nd goal off their 8th penalty corner. Seconds later, Lalit Upadhyay had the ball and the goal in front. But with a mind hassled by the ticking clock and fatigue setting in, he tried hitting the ball on the run. Despite missing that, India had a ninth PC. But, Australia knew exactly where and how to defend. The 3-2 scoreline does reflect a close battle. But the mind of India coach Harendra Singh, halted after two consecutive wins, would be rattled by too many questions and answers required before the team takes on Olympic silver medallists Belgium on Thursday.

 Champions Trophy Hockey 2018: Sluggish India fail to convert opportunities to suffer defeat against Australia

The Australian team celebrates after scoring against India. Image courtesy: Facebook/@Hockey India

Harendra looked upset on the 2nd pitch where the Indians were cooling off. “The first two quarters were bad,” he said. “But we kind of picked up in the 3rd and then pressed in the 4th. But that is not enough when player energy seemed to be hitting rock-bottom. And then missing chances, especially off PCs really let us down.”

Nine PCs with one conversion speaks of a familiar story. The turf could be blamed as it was drying fast and both the teams poured water on the area where the push happened. Birendra Lakra couldn’t trap twice; criminal in the circumstances. Psychologically, it affects teams when the defensive unit is not doing enough to stem the rot. Even at the back, apart from PR Sreejesh who effected some good saves, the rest seemed off-colour and completely devoid of intensity and spirit.

Usually, it is said that to play yourself in, hold the ball and rotate till the cows come home. But the midfield was as much to blame as the rest. Sardar Singh, Manpreet Singh and Chinglensana Singh just didn’t do enough to keep some sort of momentum going. They not only lost the ball, but also earned cards — Sardar (green) and Manpreet (yellow). SV Sunil was the captain and when he got a green he gave his armband to Manpreet who was then penalised for an infringement committed by a defender as he was the captain. Somewhere between 8-10 minutes were lost with India either playing with nine or ten men. Australia seized those moments and kept the pressure going.

The World Champions were not exactly great but India made them look even better. Australia played in the same sweeping style they usually do. Coming in like waves, they found space that India don’t normally yield. Structure in the 2nd half was completely lost.

Australia scored in the 6th minute when Lachlan Sharp got a deflection in. Powering through the midfield, India picked up pace looking for the equaliser and off a breakaway move in the 10th minute, Sunil hammered in a cross from the right. The ball zipped across the goalmouth, evading both Indian and Aussie sticks. Varun, standing wide, only a yard inside the circle, let fly a rocket that gave India the equaliser.

With seconds left to play in the 1st quarter, Australia snatched the lead when Tom Craig scored in the 15th minute. By the time the 2nd quarter ended, India had blown away five PCs and Australia four. India had seven circle entries to Australia’s five. But they made the moves count.

India were getting fatigued on a warm afternoon. Giving away turn-overs leads to teams expending more energy to fall back and retrieve. They fell back more than moving up. Mandeep had a glorious chance but the shot ricocheted off Tyler’s glove. Vivek Prasad flicked one which seemed to be from the line of the circle. The ball went in but the umpire didn’t budge as most thought it was from outside. Harendra later said, “I think it was on the line. Our mistake (that) we didn’t take a referral.”

With green cards and one yellow, India seemed to be battling constantly. Gaps opened up and Australia came close to scoring on more than just a few occasions. Sreejesh saved a few while one flick bounced off the post. India were surviving as Australia kept pressing home the advantage.

The third goal came in the 33rd minute when Tom Craig’s shot towards the Indian goal was deflected in by Trent Mitton. At 3-1, it seemed they would cruise.

Dilpreet Singh and Sunil missed sharp chances, but did not have much support up ahead as the midfield and defence were being made to work. Vivek had a brilliant opening in the 4th quarter but despite turning in a tight spot sprayed the shot wide. India desperately needed a goal to bring in some momentum and belief.

India pulled out Sreejesh in a desperate move to throw some bodies up front. And it was then that India were rewarded with three consecutive penalty corners. Harmanpreet’s 8th flick of the match, a low shot, beat Tyler all ends up. At 2-3, Australia went on defence mode. But then a cross found Lalit Upadhyay right in front of the goal. But in his haste, he tried to switch and an Aussie defender popped the ball up giving India their 9th PC. An equaliser at this stage would have felt like a match-winner. But Australia ran hard at Harmanpreet and defended the PC brilliantly.

“In a match against Australia, it always comes down to chances and how you avail them,” he explained. “They created pressure and succeeded with the goals as we chased them.”

Errors always give you an impression of a long game. And probably the players felt that too. “We knew there were mistakes happening,” admits Manpreet. “And we tried to set up momentum, but too many turn-overs and cards made the job very difficult. But I am confident about the team against Belgium. We will win.”

India have now played Australia in The Netherlands seven times and lost all seven. In the last ten matches before Wednesday’s tie, India had won once, drawn once and lost eight. Australia had been the dominating team against us and any ponderous performance would always be punished.

“We have to watch the videos and understand the mistakes,” said Harendra. “We have a match against Belgium tomorrow and I know my team will come prepared. Not the end of the world but we shouldn’t do the same mistakes again.”

On the 2nd pitch, India players were slumped against the advertising boards. Most of them would be replaying a match they thought they could win on Wednesday. Despite the failure, the Indian team will not be wallowing in the unknown or in the chaos of the defeat. On six points and a win from a possible podium finish in what is the last Champions Trophy should be enough to fire them up.

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Updated Date: Jun 28, 2018 13:24:42 IST