Consistency, that bugbear of Indian hockey raised its snarling head once again, as the national team went down 0-2 to the Olympic silver medallists Belgium at Blake Park in Tauranga, New Zealand. It wasn’t that India were outplayed. But for a team that gets four penalty corners and an equal number of field attempts, not scoring isn’t an aberration but a sin. Against a team like Belgium that controls the ball and play brilliantly, trying to create space and move with the ball becomes all that more difficult. In fact, this piece of stats would make the picture slightly clear–in the last 17 matches against Belgium, India has won only 4 and lost 13. Overall, the record stands at matches played 74 with India winning 46, losing 18 and 10 drawn. It also puts into perspective the rise of Belgium in world hockey. And the degree of difficulty India finds to break down Belgium in the midfield or the defence. For Belgium, the scorers were Arthur de Sloovers in the eighth and Victor Wegnez in the 34th minute.
It was apparent at the start that the Belgians were smarting from their 4-5 defeat against New Zealand on Wednesday. So the control against the stick-work of the Indians had to be impeccable. The first quarter was reminiscent in a way of the quarter-final played at the 2016 Rio Olympics where Belgium really pressed hard. They powered their way through the flanks, cut through the middle and kept pressing, waiting for errors. But in a match where the Indian midfield failed to ignite itself and a forward line that looked sluggish, the Indian defence stood solid and like a prize-fighter absorbed a good number of blows. PR Sreejesh made a couple of quick-silver saves but really couldn’t keep out Sloover’s reverse shot. The build-up was out of the ordinary. Arthur van Doren, Felix Denayer and Cedric Charlier played the ball and moved up with pace with the last pass a flick into the striking circle from Charlier that set up the opening goal.
Even though India earned a penalty corner, it was Belgium who were doing the missing–Sreejesh saving a field attempt and then Simon Gougnard flashing wide. At the end of the first quarter, it seemed India would still wade into the contest.
India pressed hard at the Belgian defence in the second quarter but the cohesion was missing at the front. A Mandeep Singh cross couldn’t be trapped in time by Satbir Singh while the Belgian defence scrambled to save India’s second penalty corner. Wrong passes took the initiative away from India while Harjeet Singh needed to emphasize his presence in the midfield and not just look to knock the ball away. India’s structure at the back was very good as the Belgians found it hard to go past Harmanpreet Singh and Surender Kumar. Towards the end of the second quarter, Ramandeep Singh racing down the left flank saw his reverse hit bounce off the cross bar. Belgium led 1-0 but India looked promising.
The third quarter started well with Satbir creating the third penalty corner but Belgium defended well. Not able to knock in the penalty corners does affect a team and India, even though they were pressing, but just not able to bring in the fluency. Belgium played unruffled. They held possession and rotated the ball throughout. If there was no space, they waited patiently for openings. And it came in the 34th minute when India gave Victor Wegnez the space that he even looked a little surprised at receiving. No Indian defender came forward to try and cut the angle as Victor easily had a couple of seconds to spot his corner and slam it in. The ball probably deflected off an Indian defender’s stick leaving Sreejesh stranded. At 2-0, it was an uphill task if not an impossible one. Vivek Prasad had a plucky match and it was his cross that had Mandeep and Ramandeep diving yet not reaching the ball. Harjeet had a couple of good positions in the midfield but ended up with the wrong passes, letting momentum shift. India also wasted another, their fourth penalty corner as Belgium defended well. India had just one penalty corner battery as Rupinder Pal Singh was rested for the match. In the midfield, Harjeet needs to get hold of himself otherwise the 2016 Junior World Cup winning captain will never become the player he is meant to. Yet he has time and the Indian management would do well to steer him back onto the road he should be traversing.
Belgium wanting a win badly, also some sort of revenge for the quarter-final loss to India recently in the Hockey World League Finals, pulled players back. But it was also the reaction to India’s constant pressing and playing up that made them close the gaps. India were scrambling as the captain Manpreet came forward, spraying passes all over the Belgian striking circle. Satbir interchanged from the left to right, desperately trying to throw off the Belgian defence. But the Red Lions rotated well and absorbed the Indian attacks with clean and robust tackling. India had a clear chance in the last four minutes when Mandeep moved in. But instead of passing to Ramandeep who stood in front, the tall striker took a wild shot that flew past the post. In fact, the wild heave in a way reflected India’s play–erratic, mercurial, directionless, a rambling sort of performance.
Belgian captain Thomas Briels did say after the match that ‘they held the ball much better’. "In the match against New Zealand (4-5), we didn’t lock down the defence too well so today (Thursday) we had to play better and raise the game." Briels said. Looking forward, the Belgian captain hinted at some hard training in the rest of the year for the year-end World Cup in India. India now play host New Zealand on Saturday, a must-win match if they hope to enter the 4-Nation Final.
Updated Date: Jan 18, 2018 15:39:46 IST