Four Nations Invitational Hockey: India fail to solve Belgium equation yet again after narrow loss in final

Belgium’s 2-1 winning score-line against India in the final of the Four Nations Invitational Hockey Tournament might not tell the extent of the story, but the sub-plots all went to plan.

At Blake Park, awash with sunshine and smoothened over by a cool breeze, Belgium began proceedings as they always do — high pressure — with India ending as they usually do — missed chances, moving well, yet being threaded out by that frustrating margin of a goal that would force Indian coach Sjoerd Marijne back onto the drawing board. Marijne will not be upset with the Indian display. But the constant question swirling inside most players and his head would be — how to put it past Belgium?

There were opportunities today despite the fact that Belgium had more penalty corners than the Indians — 7 to 3 — but the creation that goes into a field goal was something that would make the team management happy. But old issues like closing down the gaps and controlling the ball inside the opponents' striking circle still made you wonder as to how players who go with such fluidity inside the striking circle, fail to whack it in.

 Four Nations Invitational Hockey: India fail to solve Belgium equation yet again after narrow loss in final

Indian and Belgian players in action during the final. Image credit: Twitter/@TheHockeyIndia

Maybe, that’s the difference between winning and losing. On Sunday, and in front of quite a few local Indian fans, India succumbed to their second straight defeat to Belgium in the tournament; the heart-breaking bit was that it came in a final where a win would have a been a step, however tiny, to the structuring of a team in an Asian Games and World Cup year.

Belgium opened with Tom Boon in the fourth minute. India went on to equalise 15 minutes later through Mandeep Singh’s smart poaching skills, with Belgium then scrambling in the striking circle in the 36th minute to score the match-winner off Sebastian Dockier. Between the goals, hockey was fast, fluid with both teams having their highs and lows.

Belgium’s opening salvos were predictable. They pressed hard from both the flanks and used the middle of the striking circle to offset India’s tight defensive play. The passes were short between Arthur dee Sloover, Loick Luypaert and Amaury Keusters and the intent was to side-step Indian defenders, and not to beat them with hits into the Indian striking circle. Harmanpreet Singh, Surender Kumar and Rupinder Pal Singh are good when it comes to figuring out the hits from the opposition players. And Belgium’s tactic worked excellently in the first 10 minutes, giving them their opening goal.

India had already defended Belgium’s first penalty corner, with Chinglensana making a fine run to deflect the ball. India had the counter and missed a sitter immediately when Dilpreet Singh crossed across the Belgium goal-mouth, but Lalit Upadhyay just couldn’t bring his stick down in time. Belgium built-up beautifully and a cross inside the Indian striking circle saw an unmarked Boon gleefully tap the ball past Indian goalkeeper P Sreejesh. Pressure had paid off and Belgium led. India now had to do the chasing.

It was an end-to-end stuff in the first quarter with Belgium looking dangerous on the build-ups and counters, while India created their first penalty corner with five seconds left on the clock. Varun Kumar’s flick was saved on the line. At the end of the first quarter, Belgium led 1-0.

India produced something different in the second quarter — there was more intent as well as turnarounds. Belgium was a little sloppy as India pushed hard through the middle and used the left flank with Mandeep and Dilpreet. Mandeep, especially, had a good game and one could see him increasing his workload. He ran down the balls, clung to the defenders and did force mistakes out of them. It was a Manpreet Singh's high ball that was brought down by Dilpreet and in a flash he had relayed the ball to Mandeep who, despite having his back towards the Belgian goal and goalkeeper, managed to sneak it in for the equaliser.

The match was on as India pushed harder and could have got the lead when Lalit and Mandeep went in, but on the last touch Lalit couldn’t thread it to Mandeep. It was one-all at the break.

Finishing was an issue as Marijne also once lost his cool, shouting to the Indian forwards for more control. The first part of the third quarter was a Mandeep-Lalit-Dilpreet show. They worked the spaces and moved in fast. In a one-to-one situation with the Belgian goalkeeper, Mandeep couldn’t beat him. And then Lalit had a clear look off a Mandeep through, but the shot was wide.

It was a defensive lapse that saw Belgium take the lead. Loick Luypaert saw the gap early and shot towards Sreejesh, expecting a rebound and that’s exactly what happened. The Indian defence should have anticipated and covered the angle, but in a flash, Sebastian Dockier was on the ball, flicking it past Sreejesh. India were chasing the score once again as Belgium led 2-1. Belgium had three consecutive penalty corners with Indian captain and runner Manpreet saving every one of them with his sprints and on the third, deflecting the ball away.

With only a quarter left, India had no option but to use the flanks and create space. They needed a goal. Ramandeep and Lalit had an opportunity but again it was the lack of control in front of the Belgian goal that let India down. Belgium also had a seventh penalty corner, but India defended well and off a counter, saw Dilpreet’s hard hit saved by the goalkeeper Vincent Vanasch. And then in the last five minutes, India pulled off Sreejesh and played with 11 outfield players. In a rocking four-minute session, India earned two penalty corners and almost pulled off an equaliser with three field attempts; a Harmanpreet  hit almost went in, scraping past the post off a Vivek Sagar deflection.

The Four Nations bandwagon now moves to Hamilton for another round of matches, with a final and third/fourth playoff thrown in. In the intervening three days, Marijne would have enough to keep him occupied. Since he became coach, India has now played Belgium thrice, winning once at the quarter-finals of the Hockey World League Finals. It’s not an hour of despair with India trying some really talented youngsters, but the equations that have become so complex against Belgium need to be solved.

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Updated Date: Jan 21, 2018 14:05:57 IST