After fending off early pressure with some smart goalkeeping from Krishan Pathak, India not only came back strongly, they played some excellent possession hockey to outwit reigning Olympic Champions Argentina 3-0 and also underline the fact they are serious contenders for a Tokyo podium finish.
India scored through Harmanpreet Singh (11th, PC), Lalit Upadhyay (25th, FG) and Mandeep Singh (58th, FG); the last two goals coming off strong periods of domination.
For coach Graham Reid and the rest of the team management, the satisfaction would be to see the vast improvement on the team's earlier victory, though achieved in a shoot-out, the boys now had eradicated the inconsistency and replaced it with confidence and fluency. Staccato hockey had been replaced with efficiency in the midfield and poise upfront. The defence worked hard with Harmanpreet Singh not only giving India the lead but executing turnovers that led to Argentina being constantly pegged back.
The hosts had clear chances in the opening six minutes of the first quarter; Maico Casella, Lucas Vila having a clear look in the early stages before Martin Ferreiro, goal scorer from the previous game, went past two Indian defenders and unleashed a reverse stick which was destined to head into goal before Krishan Pathak dropped onto one knee and brilliantly deflected it off his stick. A few minutes later Lucas Martinez burst into the striking circle with Pathak, this time, deflecting with his glove.
India's control usually stems from the form and energy of their captain Manpreet Singh. In the earlier match, he had come in late, creating his magic to save the day when Argentina led 2-1 in the dying stages of the match. But, in the second encounter, the captain was on the ball, playing and moving the game to various points on the pitch with authority. With Manpreet taking charge, large swathes of space opened up with Vivek, Nilakanta, Hardik and Shamsher revelling.
Argentinian captain and deep defender Pedro Ibarra is a constant threat with his roving runs on the flanks or moving through the middle of the pitch. He was pegged back constantly staving off the Indian forwards. That space between the defenders and the midfield was exploited by the Indians who having possession constantly made Argentina run for the ball.
India's opening goal came against the run of play exactly similar to the one in the previous match. The execution was the same with Harmanpreet placing the penalty corner flick between the Argentinian goalkeeper Juan Vivaldi and the defender. Honestly, at this level, it was a soft goal for a goalkeeper of the experience and calibre of Vivaldi. Nevertheless, India led 1-0 with the goal injecting confidence.
It was in the second quarter that India played with more assurance and freedom. The midfield showing exemplary control and possession created opportunities. The second goal was a brilliant build-up; the kind that coaches show on a drawing board hoping to see it replicated on a pitch. It came from a bout of possession with the ball rotating back to the midfield from the edge of the Argentinian striking circle, involving almost seven players and finally moving in from the right flank through Lalit Upadhyay, a strong Gurjant push towards Vivaldi whose block was picked up by an overlapping, alert Lalit who pounced and tapped in.
At the halfway stage, with India leading 2-0, only complacency from the visitors or a brilliant fightback from the hosts could have provided a twist. Neither happened.
The Indian coach summed up the first two quarters: "In the first quarter, we were asleep, woke up in the 2nd and played possession hockey."
No goals came in the third quarter even with Indian dominating and earning two PCs. Dilpreet saw his shot saved by Vivaldi off a wonderful move created by Manpreet and Varun Kumar's execution of the third PC not generating power or the requisite angle.
Five minutes into the fourth quarter, with India looking to kill the game, Harmanpreet got a yellow though the reason wasn't clear with the Indian full-back looking extremely unhappy with the umpire's decision. Thankfully, from the five cards the previous day with two yellows, India improved to getting only two, still a criminal offence " a green and a yellow.
With India down to ten men, ball rotation became the order with Argentina pushing hard to cut the scores and take the match to a shoot-out. Two minutes later, Argentina's Maico got a yellow for arguing with the umpire and both teams played ten against ten. With four minutes remaining in the match, Harmanpreet back on the pitch, India surged through the middle; Gurjant setting up Shamsher from the left flank with the ball deflecting to Mandeep, who even though had fallen and was virtually sitting on the pitch still managed to scoop it into the Argentinian goal. Argentina did have two PCs in the 4th quarter but the defensive work of the Indians was solid and assured.
Analysing the first match, former Indian coach and Olympic gold medallist MK Kaushik had said about a lack of energy and the attention to detail regarding the structure of the team. He was, however, happy after the second victory saying: "They learnt quickly from the mistakes and didn't give any unnecessary space for Argentina to counter. The good aspects of the game were retaining the ball and ensuring Argentina come for it."
Japan's coach Siegfried Aikman, once again watching the game from Kuala Lumpur where the Japanese team is playing Tests against Malaysia commented: "In the first five minutes, Argentina was quick and would have been a goal up. But India grew into the match and completely dominated. The impressive part was their defensive shell and one enjoyed watching Manpreet playing a high level with Amit Rohidas, once again excellent in defence."
Aikman also spoke about the maturity of the team after taking a 2-0 lead. "Usually at times if a team is leading 2-0 in the fourth quarter, they go out and look for more goals. India were slightly conservative as they packed the midfield and waited for Argentina to make a mistake and the third goal was a result of that counter."
In all, a tremendous result for India ensures they climb up to fourth place in the Pro League standings, moving one point ahead of Australia having played the same number of games. India are drawn in the same pool with Australia, Argentina and Japan at Tokyo with the other teams being Spain and New Zealand; that for Manpreet and his boys would be the real test.