Sometimes the potential can boggle your mind, but mostly it has led to deep despair. Yet, on a humid evening, Indian striker, Mandeep Singh, whom many talk about as an 'unrealised potential', showcased his unique and gifted combination of acrobatic athleticism combined with a sense of brilliant positioning to carve out a much-needed hat-trick and in the process destroy Canada, the world's 10th ranked team 7-3. This was Mandeep's second hat-trick in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup; the first coming in 2017, a come from behind 4-3 victory against Japan.
With this win, India also move into their eighth Sultan Azlan Shah Cup final. Both India and Korea (after beating Malaysia 2-1) are on ten points with no other team capable of catching up with them. Even though India have a match with Poland and Korea take on Japan, Saturday's final will be an India vs South Korea affair.
Mandeep's stamp on the match began with India's first goal, off the team's first penalty corner. Mandeep was brought down by Adam Froese and Varun Kumar flicked into give India a 1-0 lead. The hat-trick arrived at a juncture when a goal or two from Canada could have put India under pressure. India, playing a high press and aggressive game, stood like set pieces on their own 25-yard line. Plucking the ball away off the Canadian counters, they attacked viciously, using both flanks and with Hardik going through the middle. Space was created as Canada couldn't control, either the pace or the smoothness of the attacks. Whenever they were stuck for space, India rotated. Yes, they were guilty of hurrying in some cases. But wherever they patiently built play up, they caused serious damage.
In the 20th minute, India snatched the ball away from Canada and counter-attacked. Sumit Kumar with blazing speed ran down the flank, cut in and passed perfectly to Mandeep, who while falling to his side, slammed the ball underneath the Canadian goalkeeper Antoni Kindler. Only a day back, Antoni was the man-of-the-match in Canada's 2-1 win over Asian Games champion Japan. On Wednesday, he did make saves but also understood that the combination of pace and skill could be deadly.
Leading 2-0, India blew away four more penalty corners. Hardik created a move that only required a trap and shoot but Gursahibjit, playing in his first senior tournament, couldn't control his nerves. The youngster would take some time as he has the height and of course the talent. But the important thing is to keep his morale up. Forwards are strange creatures. Without goals, they kind of freeze and go into a free-fall. Sports psychologists refer to it as a kind of an abyss.
With four minutes left in the second quarter, Canada had flicked their first penalty corner wide. On a counter, a minute later, Kothajit Singh cut into the circle and set it up perfectly for Mandeep to send the ball into the extreme left corner of the goal. Antoni had advanced and had no chance of cutting it off. India led 3-0. Canada were in disarray. They did force a second penalty corner but that also went wide. The pressure was building up on Canada. India were dismantling them brick by brick.
Crowding a striking circle usually is advantageous to the attacking team. And when play has paused for a second, a hit can be extremely dangerous with deflections flying off and the goalkeeper usually unsighted. Hardik saw the jostling inside the circle and gave it back to an advancing Surinder Kumar who had travelled upfield. Surinder hit a powerful shot into the striking circle. Mandeep, in the midst of 6-8 players, managed to deflect it into the Canadian goal. It was a stunning goal, the kind that changes equations between teams. India led 4-0 at the break. Canadian coach Paul Bundy had to keep his team alive.
With 15 circle entries in the first two quarters, India were dominating. They already had nine shots on goal to Canada's two. Playing slightly wider, slowing the game down and keeping the ball away from the Indians and not allowing them to build counters, Canada earned their fifth penalty corner, the third consecutive. Mark Pearson squeezed himself into the space between the post and goalkeeper Krishan Pathak to deflect in the flick. The scores had been cut to 1-4. Four minutes later, India were 5-1 up, thanks to Amit Rohidas whose flick flew past the Canadian defender on the line. The match was now virtually out of Canada's hands.
It would require a monumental fight back from the Canadians. And for that they would have to attack more, exposing themselves at the back. That's exactly what happened. Caught in a no-mans land, Canada played for pride trying to get more goals to make the score respectable and hope for a minor miracle. Off an Indian defensive error with the ball bouncing all over the place, Fin Boothroyd managed to steady his hands and slap the ball into the Indian goal past Sreejesh. The scores were now 2-5.
India struck back five minutes later, utilising space on the right flank. It was a lovely scoop, a wonderful piece of innovation, perfectly weighted, it flew 50 yards and looped into the Canadian striking circle. Mandeep trapped it beautifully and sent in a pass along the line that was whacked in by Vivek Prasad. At 6-2, with five minutes left, the match had been wrapped up. Yet Canada kept coming; it's difficult to keep pride down. They had a penalty corner in the 57th minute and James Wallace flicked it into the corner, right of Sreejesh; the scores were 3-6.
India had a final assault on the Canadian defence when Gursahibjit went along the line and flicked a perfect pass to Nilakanta Sharma who made it 7-3. In the end, the statistics showed India's complete domination. India had 15 shots on goal as against 6 by Canada. They had 32 circle entries against 8 by Canada with possession in the range of 60 percent.
In the recent World Cup, India had beaten Canada 5-1. But before that, they had lost in the Hockey World League Semi-Finals (London) 2-3 to Canada. In the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, India had drawn 2-2 with Canada. And in the 2015 and 2016 Azlan Shah, India had won 5-3 and 3-1.
Indian team manager Chris Ciriello didn't want to be drawn into a discussion on the final. In fact, till then the South Korea-Malaysia match had not started. "Well, we will wait and see for the next game and we will know if Korea wins. Then we both are on 10 points and that will be the final. We want to win every game we play. The team's energy was good. In less than 16 hours the boys were back on the pitch playing the match. I think they did really well to be able to come back from yesterday (Malaysia match). Many had little niggles, injuries. So, the guys to come back and work hard, it’s very impressive."
Asked on the penalty corner conversion as India scored off two from six in the match, Chris said: "Penalty corners are very important. Our basics are not good enough and we have the best 2-3 flickers. Nine guys are injured at home and those guys have played an excess of 100 games. So, they are our main pushers, strikers. These pitches are more slippery than what we are used to training on. There are no excuses we can get better. And coming to the game, we want to make more penalty corners and get good opportunities."
Canadian coach Paul Bundy was extremely disappointed with his team's performance. "This is a game very unlike Canada. Normally we are a team with a lot of heart, we work hard and show a lot of grit and we didn't have that today. That's my fault. That's not my team's fault. I am in charge, so I own that. If you are a Canadian, you work hard, you know self-discipline, you have a lot of grit.
"In the first half, we were terrible. In the second period, we didn't show that and that's my fault. So, I need to change some players, we need to change something we do. The good thing is I know who can play Olympic qualifiers and who can't."
India are now on ten points and that puts them into their eighth Sultan Azlan Shah Final. Malaysia's 1-2 defeat to Korea has left them stranded with Canada on six points each. It is impossible to now catch India and South Korea who have identical ten points with a match in hand. Saturday would see an India vs South Korea final. The only interest in the pool standings would be as to who finishes on top of the standings after the last round of matches — India or South Korea.
Updated Date: Mar 27, 2019 23:01:29 IST