Women's Hockey World Cup 2018: India exhibit great character despite midfield struggles in win over Italy
After two draws and a loss in the pool matches, India showed great character and mental strength to create a record of sorts and enter the quarter-final of the 2018 World Cup.
Amidst moments of fluidity, midfield struggles and bouts of solo exhibitionism, India did enough to sparkle in every quarter and prevail 3-0 over Italy, who were clearly still suffering from the hangover of that brutal dozen-goal thrashing from the Dutch.
After two draws and a loss in the pool matches, India showed great character and mental strength to create a record of sorts and enter the quarter-final of the 2018 World Cup. The last time India entered the semi-finals of a World Cup was when the Ajinder Kaur-led side finished fourth in the 1974 edition. It’s been a good 43 years since then and now, they stand a step away.
The 3-0 victory margin gave India its first win in this World Cup and sent Italy, who had come into the cross overs with two wins and a loss, home. With India’s slightly defensive structure, punctuated with counter-attacks, there was a chance that Italy could also stifle the goal scoring. Even though it wasn’t a fluent midfield display with turn-overs spoiling chances of regular attacks, India picked up goal opportunities and managed to close down the match in the 4th quarter.
Indian goals came in the 1st, 3rd and 4th quarter, virtually cutting off any escape routes that Italy could try and conjure. India’s defence was solid and first-time clearances were the order. Even Deep Ekka was quick on the ball to release it to the flanks. However, the midfield could have done with a bit of calm to ensure play was smoother. Namita playing central did the rotation with Neha Goyal wonderfully overlapping. Lilima also found herself in attacking positions. Pushing constantly despite pressure from the Italians after India’s opening goal showed that the Indian midfield was gaining in strength and belief, match after match.
Even though the goals were divided between Lalremsiami, Neha and Vandana Katariya, it was Siami who was the live wire. Attacking from each flank, she had the Italian defence completely stretched. Lalremsiami's swish-dribble, controlling the ball like a yo-yo on a string, her speed and remarkable enthusiasm ensured that the Italians kept a three-defence structure at the back. There was a wonderful moment in the match when she sashayed the ball to the left, then right, rendering the Italian defender clueless and then squeezed the ball between her legs into the circle. Lalremsiami’s growth as a player has been remarkable with a lot of credit going to the coaching staff.
For Italy, errors in the midfield, inability to leverage advantageous situations and throwing away turn-overs didn’t give them the momentum required to pressure the Indian defence. Giuliana Ruggieri and Jasbeer Singh were the exceptions, constantly striving to break through the middle. Jasbeer had some good moves moving past the Indian midfield. But as a team, they couldn’t come up with the answers expected from a country that had beaten Korea and China.
India’s opening goal was a classic opportunistic strike. It came after India had earned their 1st PC; a free hit from outside the circle, the sluggish Italian defence still in the process of flinging their masks when Reena Khokhar flashed in a hit. Navjot Kaur edged it with a deflection, Minz too finding the edge of her stick as the ball avoiding Italian lunges travelled to Lalremsiami who even though the angle was acute, flicked into the gap between Martina Chirico and the post. Such strikes can demoralise an opponent already disheartened by the 12-1 thrashing from the Dutch in their last game.
India still had a fair amount of chances in the Italian striking circle but the fluency wasn’t top class. A lot of hockey was played in the middle zone with defenders on both sides covering the zones well. It showed in the stats that circle entries in the 2nd Q dropped off with India getting only 2 to Italy’s one. Italy didn’t have a shot on goal while India had one.
At the break, Indian coach Sjoerd Marijne said that he was happy with the lead but not too enthusiastic about the “performance.”
Not finding that eloquence hits teams at times and earlier, an Indian team would have got bogged down with more errors. But now, it’s seen that the Indian women show more grit and tenacity ensuring a scrappy performance only makes them more determined to fight it out.
India’s second goal came right at the end of the 3rd quarter off their 4th PC. After the strike, it was a goalmouth melee with Chirico sitting on the ball and Vandana trying her best to either squeeze it through or bring it back. But it was Neha who prised it out and pushed it into the goal for India to lead 2-0. It was Neha’s second goal of the tournament.
All India needed to do in the 4th quarter was to keep errors away and ensure that possession was with India in the midfield. With Italy trying to rush things and find their way back into the match, India’s possession fell to 45 percent. But the defence wasn’t letting in anything; except for one blip that resulted in Italy’s only PC of the match which Indian goalkeeper Savita defended well.
India had two PCs in the 4th Q. Off the 6th PC of the match, in the 55th minute, Gurjit powered in a low flick and Vandana managed to deflect the ball high into the net. It was a brilliant deflection or as Marijne had said a day before the match — “things have to fall in at the right place at the right time.” With five minutes on the clock, there was no comeback for Italy.
An excited Indian captain Rani Rampal, said, “We came to win and be in the quarter-finals. But the journey is not over yet. We have an exciting game ahead and we are ready to win it.”
Even though Sjoerd Marijne couldn’t keep the smile off his face, he was realistic in his analysis. “Being consistent is tough and the PCs need to be better. We didn’t play really well but we kept the structure intact.”
Marijne also said this is a moment for the women and “they should enjoy this as it doesn’t come too often. After recovering, we will start thinking about our opponents.”
For now, India can reflect, reminisce, take a stroll through Stratford Mall, and chill a bit. Against the Irish, they need to come back more dynamic, creative and hungering to etch their place in history.