Women's Hockey World Cup 2018: Resilience, faith help India hold USA to draw, inch closer towards quarters
Faced with the humiliation of an exit from the tournament, India turned it around and drew with a group they have beaten only once in their last 10 matches with one draw.
There were three distinct possibilities; victory for India, the USA or a drawn match that would have only sent the Indian women through to the knock-outs called the cross-overs. In the end, India out-duelled the Americans, chasing an equaliser with their talismanic leader and skipper Rani Rampal running with a taped ankle who whacked in India’s first penalty corner conversion of the tournament to tie the match 1-1 and send her team into the knock-out round.
For India, the challenge was to outflank their rivals. Till then, the midfield duel was won by the USA. But the Indian women, who had an opening scare when Rampal walked off with a twisted ankle, collected themselves and controlled the game with some fine passing on the lines and used the channels through the middle, spraying measured passes on either flank. Monika had a fine game and so did Namita Toppo, a sea of calm, loose-limbed and masterful in her tackling and release of the ball. She held the midfield and also moved up when opportunity demanded.
With both the sides on one point and India enjoying a minus one goal difference, the Americans were under pressure to score and also ensure that India didn’t. USA’s hunt for the second goal would always give India the space they needed to get an equaliser or a clear winner. Sometimes, chasing is good in these circumstances. The Americans couldn’t play with abandon or come out of the structure. India stuck to its plan and refused to break discipline. They knew they would get their chances. If a few moves were spoilt because of an extra dose of individualistic play, Neha Goyal, Lilima Minz, Monika used the circle to create PCs. The Americans expected snap shots but light taps towards the feet set up the six PCs. In terms of numbers, getting one PC out of 13 in three matches doesn’t make for exciting reading. But it came when India needed it; desperately.
Things could have gone wrong terribly when Rani, running into the US half, was challenged by two defenders and slipped, twisting her ankle in the process. She hobbled off as the support staff waited on the side-lines with sprays and ice packs. Both the teams were in the meanwhile trying to find a foothold. India badly needed to build momentum and find some rhythm. Monika created the first PC as the US defence saved. The Americans were now using both the flanks. To put pressure on the Indians, they needed an early goal. And it came in the 11th minute when the Indian defence slept off for a second or so. USA seized the moment and sent a hit into the Indian striking circle. Erin Matson had the first try and then the ball came to Margaux Paolino, who pushed it through Savita Punia’s legs. It was a setback as India now had to chase.
But India didn’t let heads droop. They went back to building up and were visibly relieved when Rampal was seen coming back into the match. Immediately India had two PCs. Gurjit couldn’t find much power and pace on the second as Jackie Briggs saved easily. The third PC that came with 32 seconds left in the first quarter was sent wide.
In the 2nd quarter, even though the Americans were playing well, Toppo swung into form and released balls from the Indian defence with force and panache. India had a fourth PC and Rani struck it well but Briggs saved.
The USA also had three PCs. Punia saved one while the rest were either shot out or defended. With the American midfield scattering when on the offensive, the Indians were finding that zone where they played in tandem and made the USA team keep running back to defend. Despite having the lead, the Americans constantly looked over their shoulder.
The Indian defence with Grace Ekka, Gurjit Kaur, Sunita Lakra and Deepika were handling the likes of Paolino, Matson, Kathleen Sharkey and Tara Vittese with ease. The defence was clean and to not give away PCs in the third and fourth quarter after giving away three in the second quarter was creditable.
The USA had almost doubled the number of circle entries than India in the first two quarters — India had 11 while the USA had 17. Early in the third quarter, India earned their fifth PC. Rampal found the sweet spot as she whacked the ball with power to find the USA goalmouth. With scores tied at 1-1, the tension was palpable. It was India’s first PC conversion in the tournament. India was successful off their 12 PC. Stark numbers, yet the exhilaration that followed the Rampal goal brought confidence into the Indian ranks. Outside on the bench, smiles got bigger.
Tactically, India used the long ball. Monika, Vandana and Lalremsiami were upfront as Gurjit, Deepika and Grace hit long balls onto the flanks and right into the middle of the zone. It relieved pressure, kept the ball away from the US forwards but most importantly didn’t allow the American defence to come up and exert pressure in the Indian half.
Namita, playing with abandon, teamed up with Goyal and it was only Briggs' presence of mind that kept the ball squeezed into the corner. US captain Melissa Gonzalez was shown the green card while Punia brought off two consecutive saves. The US kept looking for the breaks.
At 1-1, the fourth quarter loomed large. The first team to make a defensive slip, a wrong tackle or even a turn-over in the midfield could find itself a goal down. India had the option to form a wall but the Americans chased a match-winner. A draw sent them home; a draw gave India a new lease of life in the tournament.
India had a wonderful opportunity to close the game in the start of the fourth quarter when Monika created a PC. Gurjit flicked hard as Briggs brought off a wonderful save. Moments later, Udita muscled herself into a scoring position in the US striking circle and her reverse hit was flipped over by Briggs. India wasn’t only defending. They were using the reserves well; fresh legs thrown into the deep end.
As the minutes ticked away, the US got desperate. In their pursuit for a match-winner, they used the left flank leaving gaping holes in the midfield which was exploited by Rani to send Lilima through. Instead of squaring back into the middle of the circle to Vandana, Lilima went for personal glory and the shot zipped past the far post.
With two seconds left on the clock, USA asked for a referral for an Indian back stick wanting a PC. It did result in some drama but the video umpire ruled it down and India played out time for a very well-deserved draw.
In the end, India’s 19 circle entries to USA’s 26 showed the depth in the Indian defence. The area of worry — the forward line that have got only one goal in three matches with the second coming off a PC. Yet making it into the cross over is quite an achievement. It also showed the character of the team. Faced with the humiliation of an exit from the tournament, the team turned it around and drew with a group they have beaten only once in their last 10 matches with one draw.
However, the degree of difficulty, hopefully, won’t be the same in the cross-overs on 31 July when India face Italy, the 17th-ranked team and would surely now fancy their chances of playing Ireland in the quarter-finals.
Resilience, faith and self-belief have brought the Indians to the very cusp of making it to the QF. No reason why they can’t proceed further into the tournament.
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