Outplayed and outfoxed in the first half, followed by an amazing show of character and fightback after the break, before finally allowing their opponents to catch up again.
This was more or less the story of India’s second Pool C match against world number 3 Belgium on Sunday, 2 December. The winner of this crucial encounter in the Hockey World Cup would have virtually sealed a quarter-final berth.
There were plenty of twists, turns and drama as India and Belgium played out an intense and hard-fought 2-2 draw that left the hosts in a slightly favourable position ahead of their final pool match against Canada on 8 December.
India began the World Cup with a resounding 5-0 victory over South Africa but the true test was to come against the world number 3 Belgium.
On paper, the Belgian Red Lions – Rio Olympic silver medallists and one of the most technically sound teams in world hockey at present – were favourites to win this match. Recent history too pointed towards it, with India managing to beat Belgium just once in the last eight matches between the two teams.
And so it began at the Kalinga Stadium on a breezy Sunday night in front of a vociferous crowd. Belgium played the only way they know – disciplined, fast and very accurate. They used the aerial balls to good effect, often outfoxing the hosts with their pace, guile and one-touch passes.
India, ranked fifth in the world, have made considerable progress over the last few years but consistency is not something that one associates with them.
While there are days when they can be flawless and look capable of beating any team in the world, on other occasions, they struggle even to get past lower-ranked teams. On those days, they appear confused, disjointed and directionless, and the first two quarters against Belgium were exactly that.
By chief coach Harendra Singh’s own admission, India were left chasing the ball in the first half and it left them high and dry. Belgium led 1-0 at the break.
All India needed at this juncture was a push, a show of character. And they found it after the half-time break.
“Stop chasing and start dictating,” Harendra told his boys at half-time asking them to play to their strength, ie, to attack.
Soon after the break, India broke out of the shell and began to attack. They placed two strikers up front who lurked dangerously in the Belgian half and began to play fearlessly. India attacked from the flanks and skipper Manpreet Singh sliced open the defence from the centre. Manpreet, a fan of football superstar Cristiano Ronaldo and considered one of the complete players in Indian hockey, was the one the team relied on. India’s ruthless energy, effective use of long balls and solid defence frustrated Belgium to no end. They now appeared tired and jaded.
The goals came from Harmanpreet Singh (39th) and Simranjeet Singh (47th) and for once, India had taken the lead.
Still Need to Learn How to Win
India did almost everything right in the third and most parts of the fourth quarter but if there is one thing they still need to learn, it is how to win matches from such positions.
If there were lessons learnt during the half-time conversation, there were many they would have taken home from the post-match huddle talk. What if they would have held Belgium for four more minutes? (India conceded a 56th minute goal for a 2-2 draw). What if they would have assured themselves of a quarter-final berth that day?
“Ifs and buts are not there in my dictionary,” said coach Harendra Singh after the match. “This is not how we play hockey. We could have finished the game after taking the lead but we didn’t. However, it was a decent show. The second half was played well.”
After a five-day gap, India face Canada on 8 December while Belgium take on South Africa on the same day. India have a good chance of topping the pool and earning a direct qualification into the quarter-final as they enjoy a superior goal difference. As things stand now, Belgium will have to beat South Africa by a huge margin if India defeat Canada in their last pool match to stop the hosts from qualifying directly for the next stage.
(The author has over 16 years of experience in sport writing and has formerly worked as Deputy Sports Editor at The Asian Age. She specialises in hockey writing and has covered one Olympics, two Hockey World Cups, Asian Games and Commonwealth Games.)
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