Expected to be bogged down by their legacy of losing emotional, high-strung hockey matches that have frequently ripped the heart out of the team, the Indians are playing under a new dawn at the Rio Olympics 2016. Courage, spirit, strength and raw guts now exemplify their approach.
Against Argentina on Tuesday, they dominated the match and won 2-1. This victory over the South Americans, semi-finalists at the 2014 World Cup, opens one half of the door that leads to a quarter-final berth. India now has two wins and one loss from three matches, giving them six points.
If coach Roelant Oltmans was troubled by the fact that his forwards were not getting enough goals, he would've been happy to see Kothajit score a gem of a goal, after Chinglensana had given India the lead from a penalty corner.
Before Tuesday's win, India had last beaten the Argentines in Olympic hockey 16 years ago, when they won 3-0 at Sydney 2000. India now has a 6-1 record against Argentina in Olympic hockey, with two matches ending in draws.
However, their superior record against Argentina wouldn't have kept the Indians away from a troubled night after the painful defeat against Germany — the loss coming with three seconds remaining in the match. Roelant Oltmans has seen enough of world hockey and has closely watched the Indian teams to understand how quickly an Indian side can crumble under the weight of a loss where a win was assured. Bereft of psychologists who keep a team's target under control like the steering of a car when on rough terrain, credit needs to be given to Oltmans to ensure that India came back and put Argentina to the sword.
India did dominate the match. But more than that, they closed the game out. No space was given. At the end of the first quarter, Argentina was actually gasping for air. No channels were available for the through ball, and tired of cracking the middle, they were forced to adopt the flanks as an approach.
India also defended well, Harmanpreet Singh and Surender Kumar playing excellent hockey. Rupinder Pal and Raghunath played the last wall with Sreejesh. The Indian captain may rue a low push that he let in, but he was solid overall and alert to keep Lucas Vila and Agustin Mazzilli at bay.
Possession play may not look beautiful or stunning, but it is effective. In between tactics played their part, as SV Sunil relied on the break for counter-attacks with Nikkin and Ramandeep doing their usual off-the-ball running. With their defence unable to come up, the South Americans were always a step behind.
India played aggressively and went wide on the flank to stretch the play. Akashdeep, with his sharp runs and lovely dodges, was always dangerous with deflections. The only area of concern is poaching more goals and keeping the average going in terms of field goals.
Manipuri duo Kothajit and Chinglesana came of age in a match where levels had to be raised and maturity shown. Anybody else could have got perturbed with the awkward bounce in India's second penalty corner, but the midfielder controlled and shot perfectly into the corner as Argentinian goalkeeper Juan Vivaldi was left unsighted for a split second and couldn't recover to affect a save. India led 1-0 in the seventh minute.
The early goal released the ghosts of the Germany game. Manpreet, who was slightly subdued and defensive against Germany, started moving up with Sardar playing midfield. It kept the Argentinians on a tight leash. Kothajit and Chinglensana swapped positions perfectly as they broke Argentina's moves and created through balls for Ramandeep and Akashdeep.
At the break, after two quarters, India led 1-0.
India needed another goal as a cushion, especially considering Argentina had Peillat Gonzalo for penalty corners and Luca Vila inside the striking circle. In the 34th minute, a move from the left flank saw the ball being passed between Sardar and Ramandeep before falling to Kothajit. No Argentine defender reacted in time as the forward saw the empty, gaping hole to the right of Vivaldi and scooped it in for India's second and a 2-0 lead.
Two goals down in the final quarter, the Pan-American champions mounted a stiff challenge as India suddenly found themselves under a barrage of attacking moves and back pedaled. Argentina earned their first penalty corner in the 48th minute and Peillat Gonzalo's low flick surprised Sreejesh who reacted late expecting a powerful, high flick. The scores had been cut to 1-2. The match was on.
Argentina, not wanting to leave the initiative, powered in with four more penalty corners, but Sreejesh saved twice and the defence deflected away two flicks. India had a couple of chances at the other end, but both were difficult acute angle chances – Sardar and Akashdeep shooting into Vivaldi's pads.
However, a hard lesson had been learnt from the defeat to Germany. India didn't go into an ultra-defensive posture. They played the ball in the midfield and stretched the field, keeping Argentina's attacking moves far and between.
With the seconds ticking over, India saw the game through to the end and earned three precious points. More importantly, however, the team had killed the ghost of last-minute failures, which has been the Achilles heel of not only this team but also of a few other highly talented ones through the decades.
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Updated Date: Aug 10, 2016 10:37:43 IST