On 9th September 2019, when the official draws for FIH Olympic Qualifier were held at the headquarters of the International Hockey Federation (FIH) in Lausanne, Switzerland, India hockey lovers were left in dilemma.
Men’s team had to face Russian team which was an easy opponent.The lowest ranked team in this qualifier was looking an easy opponent for the Indian side and some of the Hockey experts also mentioned that the Russian will surrender easily.
The prediction may be made on the basis of two team’s last encounter in FIH series Finals in Bhubaneswar where Indian team had defeated Russia by a scoreline of 10-0.
First Leg – India 4-2 Russia
India scored the first goal through penalty corner in 5th minute, Harmanpreet Singh’s quick decision making skill worked in India’s favor as he took the referral and later scored the first goal for the host.
One side Indian forward line was doing their job properly but was denied every time by Russian goalkeeper Marat Gafarov. It seemed the Russian team had done their homework properly to keep Indian attacking line away from their goal cage.
In 2nd quarter the Russians equalizes by taking advantage of Indian defense’s mistake. In 24th minute Mandeep put India back in the lead and the score stood in favor of India till half time hooter.
In the third quarter India has lacked skills in terms of keeping the possession and building attacks, while Russian kept intensity high and put the host under pressure. India scored two more goals in 4th quarter via SV Sunil and Mandeep Singh while Russia scored it’s 2nd goal in the dying seconds. At full time hooter the score was 4-2 in favor of Men in Blue.
But the Russian side had given a reality check to host, this was not the Russian team India had defeated few months back. They were more organised and played a skillful hockey.
On other side Indian team lacked in evey department, the defense line needed to be more organized in 2nd game. Forward and Midfield needs to more sharp. Team’s core strength-penalty corner experts didn’t meet the expectations. Krishan Pathak still struggling with the form.
Russian goalie Marat was the real challenge for Indian side, he was standing like a beast in front of the goal cage and now expectations were with team and coach Graham Reid to perform much better in the 2nd game.
Second Leg – India 7-1 Russia (11-3 Aggregate)
Few minutes before the 2nd game, the real pressure was on the Men in Blue as their female counterparts had got the Tokyo 2020 Olympic ticket. The Rani Rampal and Co. had defeated USA with the aggregate of 6-5 in two legged game.
When this happened Graham Reid’s boys were in the stadium and the we could see the pressure in the starting of the game as India conceded the first goal in the very first minute. Indian defense line had no answer to the Alexey Sobolevskiy’s attack.
The host were 0-1 down in the game and aggregate was 4-3 in favor of India. Captain Manpreet took the immediate charge in midfield and India earned first penalty corner, but a mistraping on the edge and team lost a good opportunity.
After this the forward line started pressing Russian defenders, Mandeep, Akashhdeep, Ramandeep and Simranjeet continuously attacked from the baseline but couldn’t make a single opportunity. The score was at 0-1 in favour of guest at first hooter.
In 2nd half Lalit pulls India level by scoring in 17th minute.
The Men in Blue knew that they are now in good position and the equalizer had done some wonder, after this the entire forward line didn’t stop and tried to penetrate the circle in every possible way, In 23rd minute Akshdeep made took the aggregate to 6-3 but the tension still stands as we were failing in the penalty corner department. When a minute left in the half time hooter, Gurinder found Akashdeep and pass the ball and Akashdeep put the ball into the goal post, the crowd in the stadium was happy so is the team.
India was leading by 7-3 on aggregate. At the starting of the 3rd quarter, green card was shown to Hardik Singh and India was down to 10 men but Russia couldn’t take advantage of this, though after few minutes they had a good chance when striker Alexander’s shot had gone too wide over the post. ‘The flash’ SV Sunil came back to original game, stealing the possession and pushing it to goal cage. In the dying second Ramandeep’s shot hit the goal post and India missed another opportunity.
India’s aim was to keep in the scoreline in favor in fourth quarter while Russian side doesn’t want to surrender easily, they have made some good attacks but every time their passes being blocked by Indian defence line. Nilkanta scored another field goal while after few minutes India scored another one via penalty corner, courtesy Rupinderpal Singh ‘Bob’.
For the oldies like me who are following Indian hockey team from very long time will be very happy to see this that team’s oldest players used their experience in this game. In 53rd and 59th minute Harmanpreet and Rupinder scored two more goals for Team India via penalty corners and in 60th minute India won the game with the aggregate of 11-3 with the help of Amit Rohidas’ drag flick being the last goal of the game.
The Men In Blue are going to Tokyo. But this is just half job done for the 8 times Olympic champions.This is good news for hockey lovers as India resumed to normal game but still the needs to work in every department specially in defense line and drag flick. The forward needs to be more sharp.
Graham Reid has to do lot of work in the next 8 months to get ready this team for Tokyo 2020 challenge.
Written by – Anshul Chavhan