Hockey World Cup 2018: Indian attackers show ability to turn the game around in 5-1 hammering of Canada
What distinguishes this Indian team from most of the past decade is the confidence in each other’s ability to turn a match around. India’s instincts and attacking ability is making opponents wary and in that lies team's biggest strength.
By the end of the third quarter, territorial possession, number of consecutive passes, dominance on the flank and that perennial bug-bear – missed chances – were all in India’s favour; except for the scoreline. And then Antoni Kindler in the 46th minute gave a glimpse of space to his right, between the pads and the post. A tic-tac between Kothajit Khadangbam and Dilpreet Singh saw the ball lie tantalisingly at Chinglensana Singh's stick. Without dragging it left or right, the Indian midfielder and vice-captain whacked it into the corner for India to lead 2-1. More importantly, the gates opened, the team found expression, the panicking Canadians gave space, and the Indians in a matter of ten minutes had closed the match with a 5-1 victory. To the delight of the 15,000 roaring fans inside The Kalinga, a quarter-final berth had been sealed.
In the last ten matches, India had beaten Canada seven times, drawn one and lost two. Significantly, the last match played between the two sides at the Hockey World League (semi-finals) in London 2017 – the scoreline was 3-2 in Canada’s favour. That afternoon still remains in a lot of player’s memories. India had 47 circle entries to Canada’s 11. Yet they lost. The casualty was one Roelant Oltmans, now Malaysia’s coach. At The Kalinga, the flow of the first three quarters if not similar was coinciding with certain elements of the London game. Mandeep had missed chances galore at the HWL and now at the World Cup was just getting too hasty with the ball. Yet, you cannot doubt the boy’s energy and the constant inter-changing of position to be able to side-step and lay his stick on a through ball.
India’s start had been mixed. The Indian captain Manpreet Singh down with a sore throat and fever took the field but was benched for large portions of the match. The momentum was slow, the build-up not quite substantial in terms of passes created or finding that empty space with an Indian player inside it. Thus, the immediate threat to the Canadians was nullified. They also played themselves in, quite happy to defend in numbers. Kindler made a good save when Dilpreet Singh after picking up a Manpreet save jabbed towards goal. By the seventh minute, India were spreading out unable to cut through the middle. After missing out on their first penalty corner, Simranjeet Singh had a sharp chance but the trap wasn’t world class. Akashdeep Singh hovering on the left flank finally made a cut into the Canadian striking circle gave it to Lalit Upadhyay who created India’s second penalty corner. It was perfectly flicked, low to the right corner and India was up 1-0. At the end of the first quarter, India had three penalty corners with one converted.
Playing at India’s pace wasn’t Canada’s strategy and neither could do it. India would have killed them off. Intelligently, Canada killed the pace completely making India run for the balls. The game suddenly from the flanks got bogged down into the midfield. India defended. Canada looked for opportunities. India had one when Sumit made a fast change and smacked a reverse hit that had Kindler scrambling to save. The game wasn’t going anywhere. Canada didn’t want to concede any more goals as the match would go away from their hands. They had to remain on the fringes. India made errors. Surprisingly, yet again no aerial balls to break down the midfield play or even play down the lines with forwards far out.
Whatever moves India made was either met with a clean tackle or a shoulder and in an extreme case fouling the player. Canada had a green card (Iain Smythe) and then a yellow (James Wallace) shown in the second quarter. Down to ten men, Canada played out the quarter.
At the start of the third quarter, India seemed lacking verve and energy. As the Canadians had said a day before the match that the fans like an Indian side that is constantly attacking as it keeps them involved in the game. With the match getting muddled in the middle, fans were restless.
The mistake came in the 39th minute. Canada had waited for it and they turned it into a counter-attack. It was elementary like the old-fashioned wasp honey trap. Simranjeet drove on with the ball, going past three Canadian defenders before the ball was taken away and a counter-attack created. India had big zones free in the middle and Canada exploited. Keegan Pereira sped through the middle and passed perfectly to Floris Son whose perfect tap made the ball rise and go over the onrushing PR Sreejesh. The Indian defence was empty, most caught just outside the Indian striking circle. The swiftness of the Canadian counter would have worried the Indian coach Harendra Singh. Canada had equalised 1-1 and the match was open. In the space of five minutes, India missed twice; Lalit and then Mandeep.
At the end of the third quarter with the scores tied 1-1, anything was possible in the game. India had to come out. There was too much at stake. The pole position in Pool C was needed. Canada was covering the zones well. India spread out and it paid off in the 46th minute. Kothajit moved in and passed to Dilpreet who saw the ball deflecting off the stick and reaching Chinglensana as the midfielder smashed the ball into the corner of the goal. At 2-1, Canada was rattled. India had wrenched open the door.
And then a minute later, a silly error from Canada gave India their third goal. Sukhi Panesar hung onto the ball without clearing it away as Lalit Upadhyay snatched it away and raced into the striking circle. Lalit’s straight shot beat Kindler as the stadium erupted. They knew the match was in India’s pocket. Canada’s resistance had been broken.
Four minutes later, as India mounted attack after attack, the midfield now flowing, India had their fourth penalty corner. Amit Rohidas came up, deftly took the ball to the right and smashed it home for India to lead 4-1. Canada was down to ten men again as James Kirkpatrick was shown the yellow card. They would now play with ten, their second yellow of the match.
In the 57th minute, Sumit, who worked hard through the match, found himself racing down the touch line as his centre found Lalit who tapped the ball into goal. At 5-1, Canada’s hopes had evaporated. India took off Sreejesh as Harmanpreet became the kicking back.
India had two more penalty corners but couldn’t score off them. In the end, it was a job well done, though Harendra would look closely on second and third quarters. The analysis of those two quarters would provide adequate answers for the big quarter-final up ahead. “We are putting energy,” explained Harendra. “But, somewhere, we are missing the final pass. This team has the capability to score any moment. We have to wait for our moment, can't rush towards the ball. I think the first half, we did too much running. The final execution, we were too much in a hurry. I think that childish instinct, the team has to throw that out. That is what we spoke at half-time,” Harendra said.
The Canadian coach Paul Bundy said instructions were quite clear that they have to hold India and get the counters moving. “But we have to admit that the moment we gave space, they killed us,” said Bundy.
Japan’s coach Siegfried Aikman, under whom the Japanese won their first ever Asian Games Gold has always maintained that the more space you give to India, more goals you will concede.
Nobody knows that better than Aikman whose side were thrashed 8-0 in Jakarta.
The last time India beat Canada by a margin of 5-1 was at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the captain of that side MM Somaya watched the game at The Kalinga. “I liked what I saw,” Somaya said.
“And I believe the youngsters are not overawed by the occasion. Yes, there are moments of pressure but they did well to come out of it.”
There could have been conflicting views on a scenario if India had not scored early in the fourth quarter. Pressure would have been massive and a result could have gone either way. Yet another member of that 1988 Olympic side, Merwyn Fernandes, watching at The Kalinga explained: “I personally watched it critically and had India not scored the second goal…I think the game could have been different. We need to get the breaks as things wouldn’t be easy in the quarter-final. But yes the quick goals gave them the initiative and we deservedly won the game.”
With two converted out of six penalty corners, Jugraj Singh does feel there is an issue with ball stopping. “I feel there is an issue with stopping the ball and I believe they will sort it out.” Somaya had a word about the Indian defence saying the big advantage is that defenders are attackers and vice-versa. “But in that anxiety and excitement of attacking they should never forget that their first job is to defend. You should not forget your primary role.”
In fact, one needs to understand that India created history of sorts by topping the Pool in a World Cup for the first time since 1975. Then, India had topped with seven points after winning three, drawing one and losing one match. India were equal with West Germany but had a better goal difference. Also, they had gone onto win the tournament.
What distinguishes this side from most of the past decade is the confidence in each other’s ability to turn a match around. India’s instincts and attacking ability is making opponents wary and in that lies team's biggest strength.
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