India's 3-1 score-line against Poland would seem disappointing but hardly surprising. India chase an expression " consistency " so often used by different coaches, in different years, eras. For the Indian national team, it was the opposite, inconsistency, that defined them through 2018 and now in the middle of 2019, an important year in moulding the team once again with an Olympic berth at stake later in the year, figuring out consistency is becoming like a dog chasing its tail.
We can take the easier route; a new coach, timelines needed. But the truth also is that virtually the same team played the Azlan Shah where India beat Poland 10-0. At the end of the day, the optimist would collect three points and argue, "win by any margin, all you get is three points." Agreed, but this team started by targeting that one area where coach Graham Reid believed India needed more work " finishing. And that lacked against Poland.
There were massive positives also; Manpreet seizing the opportunity, playing like a leader and showing a vein of aggression that he constantly needs to wear on his sleeve. This team needs a leader, a chieftain, a honcho who not only pushes a brand of aggression but makes the team play it. To be fair, the team enjoyed large portions of possession but couldn't create chances constantly to power in goals " the only currency used when a team annihilates the other.
Poland were first off the blocks. A turn on the right wing, a cross that slit the Indian defence through the middle and in the scramble, they conceded a penalty corner, barely 30 seconds into the match. Poland made a hash of it and India took a deep breath. Yet the fluency wasn't there. They struggled with balls in the middle, their runs on the flanks rarely troubled the Polish defence and when they had the consistency going, Poland's goalkeeper Maciej Pacanowski ensured that the Indian forwards were a frustrated lot. Pacanowski, like a lot of Europeans goalkeepers, is not tall. With a low centre of gravity, Pacanowski kept out the PCs and defended some five field shots. If Poland had any chance of surprising India or keeping the scores low, which they did, they need to give credit to their brilliant goalkeeper.
The rest of the team played well. In fact, if a team learnt from the Azlan Shah experience, it was Poland. They spread the defence and didn't play in clusters. The use of the counterattack was clever but even when they played down the middle, some of the skill was noteworthy. India constantly ran into an 8-man defence, standing like a wall. Simranjeet, Ramandeep, Mandeep took the ball wide but that was exactly what Poland wanted. A player like Akashdeep should have taken the Polish defence to one side opening gaps in the middle and on the edges of the striking circle. But the moves that define tactics and strategy were few and far.
At the end of the first quarter, the goalless score-line would have lifted the Polish side. In the last five matches against Poland, India had won all, scoring 27 goals and conceding three. The second quarter was pacy. India looking to open the Polish defence stretched the flanks and won their first PC. Harmanpreet had a powerful low flick saved brilliantly by Pacanowski, going down low and taking it on the glove. Within minutes, India had their second PC and yet again the Polish goalkeeper saved the Harmanpreet flick. Unfortunately for Poland, the rebound fell in the middle of the striking circle and an overlapping Manpreet Singh flicked it into the goal. India led 1-0 in the 21st minute.
Four minutes later, Poland caught the Indian defence taking a nap. Mateusz Hulboj standing next to the Indian goalkeeper Krishan Pathak saw the ball deflected off Hardik's stick which Varun also couldn't trap as the Polish forward deflected it past Pathak. It was a silly goal, a goal conceded not under pressure but a lack of focus.
At 1-1, the Indians seemed rattled. Yet they forced their way through the middle. It was Poland that were caught at the back. Manpreet, probably smarting from the Polish equaliser, played a one-to-one with Simranjeet, entered the striking circle and seeing the goalkeeper advance, dived and pushed the ball into the Polish goal. It was a spectacular, brilliant piece of hockey. With two goals to his name, the Indian captain was on fire.
It should have opened the flood gates. But Poland fell back to disciplined defence, marking the forwards, clearing to players upfront and holding the ball. There weren't too many turnovers that India could seize and use it to their advantage. But they held possession.
At the break, India led 2-1; early in the year at the Azlan Shah, India had led 6-0 at the same stage.
The third quarter was much better in terms of skill and using the edge of the striking circle to create chances. But the Polish defence held fast. Mandeep, Simranjeet, Gursahib, Nilakanta, all made the moves, playing within themselves but the final shot was hasty or shot wide. Thrice the goalkeeper saved when Mandeep played on the line with fierce hits racing across the Polish goalmouth. Not many Indian forwards extended their sticks for the deflection. Poland constantly waited for a counterattack. A few came but Harmanpreet and Surender took care of it. In the 36th minute, India had their fourth PC and Harmanpreet flicked it into the right corner. At 3-1, the match seemed safe, unless India committed hara-kiri.
India had a fifth PC but even after Rohidas sold a dummy, Varun was late on the flick as the Polish goalkeeper had enough time to judge the flick. Mandeep had a few more chances but the shots went straight to the goalkeeper's pads making his life easy.
The fourth quarter resembled a dull, training session. India did try and pour in the energy but there are some days when nothing works. They drilled on, circled the Polish defence, zipped the ball in from the top of the striking circle, played in tandem but the quarter was fated to be goalless.
It was India's 30th win in 43 matches which has a history of eight draws and six losses. Polish coach Karol Sniezek was happy with his team's performance. "The game went the way we had planned it," said Karol. "At the Azlan Shah, we were coming into Malaysia after a winter break, so we were caught on the wrong foot. Our defence played well. We were smarter and I am proud of the boys."
Karol also emphasised that the goalkeeper must play well in such matches if the team wants to keep the scores low so that they can have a realistic chance in the game. "We got the equaliser and then suddenly we committed a mistake and conceded the goal to India. You also need a bit of luck to hold out."
Polish captain Pawel Bratkowski felt that the Polish were physically better than what they were in the Azlan Shah. "Also, the evening temperatures here are around 32 degrees while it was 40 in Malaysia."
Indian coach Graham Reid would have been happy with the three points that take India to six in two matches with a game against Uzbekistan coming up. Realistically, it should be nine points in three matches and topping the pool gives India a semi-final berth here. But overall, the Indian coach felt that his team wasn't sharp against the Polish. "We didn't start sharp. But we will keep working on it and improve."
Reid said that it was obvious that Poland would play an ultra-defensive game. "We knew that was going to happen," he said. "We didn't play our best and didn't grab our opportunities." The Indian coach was clear that in the days ahead the team needs to work on their tackling and goal efficiency.
Reid spoke about composure and that the team 'switched on and off' during the match. "What happens is that they get distracted from the job," explained the Australian.
India have a two-day break before taking on Uzbekistan, their last match in the Pool. Reid gets time to further understand the job he has on hand while the Indian team also gets an opportunity to check on the gaffes and figure out that expression " consistency.