Despite not being pushed to the brink, India gave it’s all. Playing percentage hockey, committing less errors and getting the goals at crucial periods, India sidestepped host New Zealand 3-1, to enter the final of the 4 Nations Invitational Hockey at Blake Park, New Zealand. India needed a win, especially after the loss to Belgium and playing a final against the Olympic silver medallist would be a step in the right direction. The 4 Nation Invitational may not be a tournament that gives the team crucial FIH ranking points but pride is something most teams play for and when India converted a penalty corner in the second minute off Harmanpreet Singh, the Asian Champions were well on their way. India now plays the final against Belgium who beat Japan 4-1. In the end, three teams – India, Belgium and New Zealand had six points each but India with a goal difference of plus six and Belgium with plus four made it through. Host New Zealand will play Japan for 3rd/4th.
India scored through Harmanpreet Singh (2nd), Dilpreet Singh (21st) and Mandeep Singh (47th). The Kiwis only goal came off a penalty corner hammered in by Russell Kane (42nd).
It was a bright and warm day, perfect conditions for sport and for India too. In the last match, the Indians were a little uncomfortable with the blustery weather that came with light rains. But on Saturday, the sunshine had both teams pressing hard. New Zealand, in fact, after wins over Japan and Belgium must have given themselves more than just an outside chance against India. Despite the fact that in the 2017 Azlan Shah tournament, the Kiwis had lost two consecutive matches in the competition to India–0-3 and 0-4. India, then under Coach Roelant Oltmans, had played with a solid defence and swift midfield creating chances upfront. Now the Indian team under Sjoerd Marijne, in his third tournament, used a four man defence and a strong midfield. But upfront, chances weren’t created as much as one would have hoped. India did have breakthroughs, but the forwards like Armaan Qureshi, Ramandeep Singh, Dilpreet Singh and Mandeep Singh were not that fleet-footed or sure of their positioning. Even though Dilpreet and Mandeep got the second and third goals, more was expected, especially when it came to creating space and ensuring that playing up would have pushed the Kiwis back, creating pressure.
In the second and third quarters, Marijne was shouting at the Indian forwards to move up and press. New Zealand were taking advantage of the space between the Indian forwards and midfield to push the ball through. And not pressing when the Kiwi defence had the ball also gave them the luxury to come up, allowing their forwards to press the Indian defence. Yet it could easily have been a second goal for India when Lalit Upadhyay had a generous slice of space but he blazed over.
India’s second goal was off a build-up when Rupinder Pal Singh on one of his moves upfront gave the ball to Vivek Sagar who after going deep into the striking circle gave it back into the middle of the circle to Dilpreet. The Jalandhar boy has this uncanny talent of creating space in front and on either side. A slight twist and well taken reverse hit saw the Kiwi goalkeeper Richard Joyce beaten. From the outside it seemed simple but the tactic of dropping a shoulder to the right and taking the ball to the left is craft and Dilpreet, now officially being looked as serious striking talent is underlining his status in the coach’s eyes.
The third quarter saw New Zealand pushing hard. They used both the flanks and constantly entered the striking circle. But the Indian defence of Surender, Rupinder Pal and Harmanpreet played well. It was only in the latter part of the quarter that India conceded four penalty corners. Sreejesh brought of three saves, two of which were direct flicks and then off a variation which rebounded off his pads onto the head of Hugo Inglis. It was on the third penalty corner that New Zealand finally found success. Russell Kane flicking to the left of Sreejesh and with the scores at 1-2, the match had enough life left. India didn’t want a draw as that would have left the door open to a chance of being pipped on goal difference. Towards the end of the third quarter, New Zealand had their fourth penalty corner off a stick check committed by Harmanpreet Singh, who did appeal to the umpire but with no video replays, it was the Indian player’s words against the judgement of the umpire. India defended well with the rising flick hitting Surender’s stick and getting deflected away.
New Zealand, after the break, had brought in George Enersen to replace Joyce as goalkeeper. India also brought in Krishan Kant for Sreejesh at the end of the third quarter. There was more resolve in the Indian midfield and it was one those hard hits into the Kiwi striking circle hit more than hope than any intent that saw Mandeep latching onto it and deflecting it into goal. At 3-1, it was an uphill task for New Zealand. But they managed their fifth penalty corner which India defended well. New Zealand coach Darren Smith took off the goalkeeper as the team played with eleven field players. Armaan had a great opportunity but couldn’t reach the ball and at the other end, off a counter-attack a Nick Ross through ball from the right hand side of the striking circle was missed by Mitai-Wells Leo.
In the end, India held off the Kiwis, recording a well-deserved victory. For Marijne, the final against Belgium on Sunday will be yet another opportunity to experiment with the team in order to achieve that stability that the Dutchman desires before the big three tournaments kick in–Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and the World Cup.
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Updated Date: Jan 20, 2018 15:42:27 IST