FIH Series Finals 2019: India storm into semis with Uzbekistan win, but dismal penalty corner conversions continue to trouble

Amid another double-figure scoreline, a faltering penalty corner battery and a forward-line that could do with some fluency, India spanked the 43rd-ranked hockey nation, Uzbekistan, 10-0 to top Pool A and move into the semi-finals of the FIH Men’s Series Finals in Bhubaneswar. Such scorelines are a reason to celebrate. It was, however, a match in which one could count the number of chances missed rather than the ones put away. And that could provide some depressing reading. To look at the positives, one agrees with coach Graham Reid that "opportunities are being created" and that "it takes time to bring a team together." Hopefully, one understands that "bringing a team together" means understanding the ‘Graham Reid’ philosophy.

 FIH Series Finals 2019: India storm into semis with Uzbekistan win, but dismal penalty corner conversions continue to trouble

Mandeep Singh (left) celebrates a goal with Varun Kumar against Uzbekistan. Image: Twitter/@TheHockeyIndia

These are early days under Reid even if the team has enough pedigree combined with experience; seven players have 100-plus internationals with four on 50-plus. Yet, you do get the feeling that there is a lack of intensity moving into the 3rd and 4th quarter. Against Poland, India couldn’t score in the 4th quarter. Against Uzbekistan, India got two goals in the 4th Quarter after leading 8-0. One can put it down to fatigue and playing a match in which not much, or anything, was at stake. But the same should hold for the other team where, like the Polish goalkeeper, the Uzbek custodian Marsel Askarov must have saved at least six shots on goal.

If there is anything that should worry the management, it is the amount of missed goals or chances that the team fritters away. Good teams wallop the opposition. Maybe the opposition like Poland have improved. India thrashed them 10-0 in the Azlan Shah but could only win by a 3-1 margin here. Akashdeep Singh, who got a hat-trick against the Uzbeks, explained: “You can’t take any team lightly and think we can get an easy game.”

It looked like an easy game, to begin with. The Uzbek defence was in all sorts of trouble as Mandeep Singh, Simranjeet Singh, and Akashdeep Singh used their subtle skills to prise them open. Four penalty corners went up in smoke — either shot out or the goalkeeper saved them. Interestingly, the PCs that went in were either carpet shots or placed perfectly into the corners. With the number of PCs India get, their scorers should be way ahead on the list with multiple hat-tricks. This is where Graham Reid needs to look and understand as to why we haven’t yet got the PCs moving even with Chris Ciriello looking at that department.

India shot into the lead in the 4th minute when Varun Kumar flicked in nice and easy, all along the turf. The 6th PC went wide. It was on the 7th PC that India got its second goal — a Varun flick rebounded off the goalkeeper’s glove and Akashdeep lurking nearby shot home a reverse hit. In the 15th minute, India had their 8th PC as Amit Rohidas flicked it high into the net. India led 3-0 at the end of the 1st Quarter.

In the first 15 minutes, India had 8 PCs. In the next quarter, the 2nd, India would only get two PCs with one conversion and three field goals. Varun got the 4th with a lovely run down the right flank and then on the line squeezing a shot into the Uzbek goal from almost zero angle. Akashdeep made it 5-0 and then off the 9th PC, Rohidas saw his flick saved but the rebound fell to Nilakanta who whacked it in. India led 6-0 in the 27th minute. A 10th PC was wasted before Ramandeep created an opportunity for Mandeep to slot in for India’s 7th goal in the 30th minute.

At the break, India led 7-0.

India had just one PC in the 3rd quarter. It was domination without rewards. India did move into Uzbek territory with ease. But the strategy to dispel them and create space inside the striking circle wasn’t working. Neither was the tactical acumen, to get more PCs, effective. Vivek Sagar shot from the top of the circle; Mandeep fell over himself in trying to cut past two or more defenders; Simranjeet couldn’t find space while Akashdeep did enough to be on the scorers' list thrice.

Ramandeep injected for the PCs and did the leg work for the others but couldn’t find anything for himself. After three matches, he still must come onto the scoreboard and it must be bothering the Indian forward who came back into the Indian after a year off with a knee injury. He is doing the hard work and putting in the yards. But the soul of a forward needs goals to be satiated. Now, he must be tortured. With a semi-final and a possible final in front, Ramandeep needs to keep his wits and not feel the pressure.

Akashdeep came to his rescue in the post-match conference when it was pointed out that Ramandeep hasn’t been scoring. “We have a good understanding both on and off the field,” said Akashdeep. “After a year’s lay-off, it does get difficult. I am sure he will do better in the next two games.”

India’s 8th goal arrived at the end of the 3rd quarter off a midfield move by Amit Rohidas who seeing the space given, moved up, passed to Sumit who then set up Gursahibjit Singh with a through which was tapped in. Only one goal came in the 3rd quarter. The pace had slowed considerably. India seemed to have lost the intensity or probably playing an opponent who wasn’t being a catalyst to increase the level of the match was a factor.

The 4th quarter yielded two goals. In the 53rd minute, a one-to-one play with Mandeep, and then Akashdeep smashing in the 9th goal with a tennis-like shot. Simranjeet set up Mandeep who got his second goal of the match in the 60th minute. Getting a double-figure would have felt better for the team. In their first match of the tournament, they had beaten Russia by ten goals.

Before the semi-final on 14 June, India have three days’ rest and that could be positive or negative looking at the work ethic of the team. Graham feels the boys get to rest. “But we will be upfront,” he said. “The team will stay sharp and train well.”

The three-day break might also give them time to look at a melange in terms of the PC routine. Now, it doesn’t seem to be working. India have had 26 PCs and only ten conversions. In a top-level tournament, it might be above average. Not against this opposition.

Another area is the goalkeepers. Both P Sreejesh and Krishan Pathak haven’t had much to save. Even in the match against Poland, it was a quiet day at the office for both. In a semi-final or a final with a little more thrust, they could be caught off hand like Pathak was against Poland. Graham Reid said, “The goalkeepers put pressure on each other. It’s good they get a quarter each as they are then switched on.”

On the opportunities, Reid explained, “We get good 3-4 opportunities in the first five minutes. We need to start quickly and avail them.”

There is always a period of adjustment for all — Graham Reid and the players. By the time the tournament comes around to those crucial days — semi-final and final — bits and pieces of the puzzle would have been put together.

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Updated Date: Jun 11, 2019 11:06:04 IST