Into the sprawling Kalinga walked a Belgium team their sticks touched with semtex. Firebrand stuff in the first ten minutes as they not only held space in the first two quarters " except for India's two penetrations " but also seemed to own the turf. For the fans and, worse, for the Indian team bench, a nightmare seemed to be unfolding on the pitch.
One did hope for a better tactical response, but ice water had seeped into Indian veins. While coach Harendra Singh seethed on the sidelines, India hung on as Belgium were startled by the amount of free zones available to play. The turnaround came after the break, a different team, ferociously claiming territory as India dominated to not only equalise, but lead till another defensive lapse gave Belgium a precious point. India walked away with a 2-2 scoreline, but that feeling of letting victory slip away would have haunted them through the night.
Tactically, Belgium couldn't have laid it out better. It's another story as to what went wrong with India in the first two quarters. Belgium opened with a full press from the flanks and picked up two PCs in the opening three minutes. Chaos prevailed as India scrambled to hold position. The second PC was saved on the line by Surender Kumar. In the first five minutes, four circle entries by Belgium and none for India decided a script that would play out in the first two quarters.
India, panicking, refused to hold, control or rotate. Belgium pressed with three players, cutting off the passing channels. India didn't push the ball back and very surprisingly didn't take the aerial route, something that would become their weapon only in the 3rd and 4th quarter. The midfield vanished and found itself playing defensively. Of course, there are times in the match when an entire team defends; but not for a full two quarters without coming out of the zone to press the opposition.
As panic set in, mis-passes became the order. Turnovers gave Belgium momentum. And in the 8th minute, off the 3rd PC, Alexander Hendrickx saw his relatively soft flick speed along the turf and squeeze itself through the pads of Sreejesh. India had conceded a soft goal. Belgium knew they had India on the mat. They pressed and Cedric Charlier couldn't hold on to the ball with Sreejesh in front.
Manpreet Singh, Hardik Singh, Chinglensana Singh were over-committing. It's a cardinal rule sometimes: when being dominated, don't drag and give away the ball. Make sure you are looking up and find your man. If you can't, rotate it back.
India looked at the ball as Belgium cut down with 2-3 men on each Indian player. All one could see were red shirts. It almost seemed India were short on players.
Yet Birendra Lakra, in a moment of frustration, strode through the midfield and gave it to Dilpreet Singh, whose pass was deflected by Mandeep Singh but not on target.
Things should have changed in the 2nd quarter. But India lived dangerously. India adopted Belgian methods of shooting and hammering the ball into the striking circle. But usually the hit was lifted. Even the basics were coming undone. Dilpreet had the space on the right of the Belgium striking circle but instead of coming in further took a heavy hit which was easily trapped by the Belgian defence. What was worrying was the lack of response from India.
John-John Dohmen, Victor Wegnez and Simon Gougnard controlled the pace, made the runs and held the midfield so tightly that India were stifled of the 2nd quarter too. Tom Boon, finding himself just near the Indian goal, couldn't control a deflection that just flew past the Indian post.
By the time the break came, to India's utmost relief, Belgium led 1-0 with nine circle entries to India's two. In a sense, Belgium's biggest deficiency was what India are usually accused of " not closing off the match with the amount of chances they get. In not scoring more, Belgium had left a door open for India to come back.
Chris Ciriello, India's analyst and the hat-trick man for Australia in the last World Cup final in that massive 6-1 win for Australia over the Dutch, refused to elaborate on what transpired during the break. Neither did Harendra Singh in his post-match conference. Chris only pointed towards the GPS (Global Positioning System). "It was quite clear that players were not doing enough. We needed more effort. Productive effort. The amount of distance a few players should have run in order to control the play was not showing up. And that is where as a team you need to have the ball."
The implication was quite clear " have the ball, create space, run for it and control it again. It also meant that off-the-ball running to be able to give more chances for the player holding the ball to deliver a better pass wasn't happening.
In the 3rd quarter, India started off holding the ball. The midfield moved up. The defence, except for one player, also played upfront and suddenly players like Simranjeet Singh, Lalit Upadhyay, Dilpreet and Akashdeep Singh emerged from the shadows. They had more of the ball and when they started creating; Belgium fell back, giving away the midfield to India.
Manpreet, invisible in the first two quarters with a lot of defending, made the mid zone his own and those balls which made the flanks cut into the circle started happening. The aerials, completely taken off the Indian repertoire earlier, suddenly appeared and Hardik, Harmanpreet and Varun made things happen. Belgium had a match on and a lead to save.
In a flurry of movement across the Belgian half, Dilpreet found his pace and muffed up three chances as Belgian goalkeeper Vanasch showed exactly why he is so highly rated. Lalit, who had found his groove, created India's 1st PC but Harmanpreet's high flick was taken on the gloves by Vanasch.
Nilakanta had also found his legs and he wove around squeezing the ball through. Belgium were back tracking. In fact, for a straight stretch of six minutes, they couldn't get past the Indian midfield. India had their 2nd PC as Varun flicked and found a Belgian leg again. Off the resultant 3rd PC, the ball hit Arthur Sloover's leg on the line. It was a stroke and converted confidently by Harmanpreet. At 1-1, the match was on.
The Indians had spread over the field. Surender Kumar and Harmanpreet found themselves inside the Belgian striking circle. India were stretching the play, creating space and closing the gaps fast. The pace had picked up and the intensity was scorching the turf. Emmanuel Stockbroekx was the only one trying to create and make runs on his own through the Indian midfield.
In the 4th quarter, Belgium ceded more territory and Kothajit ran down the touchline on the left side of the Belgian striking circle. A straight through pass glided past outstretched Belgian sticks, but it was Simranjeet, with a deflection, who gave India the lead.
The Kalinga was roaring. Silent through the 1st and 2nd quarter, they had found their voice.
India clung to the flanks, found the lines and passes sped onto Indian sticks. Chinglensana, Kothajit, Sumit, Hardik, having the space, effectively kept control and used the aerial balls. A high ball from Varun almost found Lalit alone inside the Belgian striking circle.
Numbers, are at times, reflective of how a match could still turn. With five minutes left and India leading, it was simply about keeping heads down, clearing the ball and still finding space to push Belgium back. In the last ten matches, Belgium had beaten India six times, twice in shoot-outs. In those ten matches, thrice the scores had been tied at regulation time. But the difference in Belgium or India winning had been a difference of one goal on five occasions. Matches had been close and could run till the last second.
Belgium pulled off their goalkeeper Vanasch with four minutes, 45 seconds left on the clock. And with four minutes left, Belgium got the equaliser. It was a defensive drill that went wrong. The ball almost skipping over the Indian defenders sticks found Simon Gougnard off a deflection. Simon's shot, not the most powerful he has taken, squeezed itself yet again through Sreejesh's pads. At 2-2, it was still anybody's game. But the Belgians didn't bring Vanasch back. They were searching for a match-winner. To top Pool C, where India has a better goal difference, Belgium needed a win.
For India, this was the best chance by holding the ball and creating a move or pulling off a PC as without a goalkeeper, Belgium would be hardpressed to defend. Tactically they faltered here.
Harendra, speaking on the equaliser conceded to Belgium, said, "Don't call it misfortune (conceding in final few minutes). The ball was with us. We snatched the ball, we tried to run with it when we should have passed. Getting a turnover is an art, but giving turnovers is suicide. That is where we paid the price, giving the turnover to our opponents."
In the end it was a logical climax, classically interwoven with drama, a cat-and-mouse finish that had the fans satiated with that slight tinge of disappointment of India not holding on.