When the draws for the 2023 FIH Hockey Men’s World Cup was released, all eyes were on matchday two of the pool stage in Bhubaneswar. And boy, did it deliver.
A day after India played out a thrilling 0-0 draw against England, Argentina nearly took all three points against favorites Australia. On Tuesday, two-time champions Germany were seven minutes away from inflicting a first World Cup loss to defending champions Belgium in eight matches.
In their previous five meetings before Tuesday’s match-up, Belgium had scored 17 goals to Germany’s eight having won four matches. On Tuesday, Germany forgot all their recent travails against the Belgians to play out a thrilling 2-2 draw in Pool B.
Against a Belgian side which dominates possession and bides their time, the Germans came up with a clear game plan. Defend deep and hit back with high balls. However, when Cedric Charlier struck in the ninth minute with a ferocious shot, it looked like Germany would be facing yet another night to forget.
Andre Henning’s side had only 17% of possession in the first quarter with just one clear-cut chance falling to Christopher Ruhr in the eighth minute which was saved well by Vincent Vanasch.
Despite being swamped by the experienced Belgians, Germany stuck by their game plan. In the sixth minute of the second quarter, skipper Mats Grambusch set up Niklas Wellen with a glorious chance to level the score only for the No 9 to miss.
However, on a day where he became a first-time father, Wellen came up with a superb goal to haul his side level. Pouncing on a loose ball just outside the D, Wellen made his way to the right of the box and from an acute angle, found the back of the goal with a ferocious shot.
Belgium pushed and probed the German defence for much of the second and third quarters but the German wall remained impenetrable. Though they had no penalty corners in the entire match, the Germans also restricted Alexander Hendrickx to just the two PCs which they managed to defend.
Despite being starved of possession, Germany made the most when they sprung on the attack regularly testing Vanasch in the Belgian goal. Wellen, in particular, was dangerous in front of goal.
Their persistence paid off in the 52nd minute when Nicolas de Kerpel, Belgium’s least-experienced outfield player with 94 caps (you read that right!), shoved Marco Miltkau in the circle to give Germany a penalty stroke. Tom Grambusch dispatched the stroke with ease to take Germany seven minutes away from a famous win.
After defending resolutely for over 50 minutes, Germany slipped up when Thies Prinze picked up a green card leaving his side with 10 men. Belgium duly took advantage of having the extra man scoring the equaliser through Victor Wegnez in the 54th minute.
“Anytime you are up a goal with 7 minutes to go, you can’t be happy with a draw. But for the game overall a draw is a fair result. We weren’t very sharp in the first half and in the second we had chances to go two goals up, which we didn’t take,” ‘Daddy’ of the match Wellen said after the match.
Australia survive scare
Earlier on Monday, Australia came into their Pool A match against Argentina on the back of an 8-0 rout of France. That Argentina laboured to a 1-0 win over South Africa in their first pool encounter only strengthened Australia’s status of favourites.
However, Argentina were a different team altogether, starting brightly and nearly taking the lead from a fifth-minute penalty corner only to be denied by Andrew Charter. The Kookaburras took the lead in the ninth minute when Jeremy Hayward scored his fourth goal of the tournament from a penalty corner.
Las Leones struck back with a penalty corner goal of their own when Tomas Domene powered his flick past Charter. The Australians, however, went into half-time with a 2-1 lead. Jake Whetton’s shot was deflected onto the post. Daniel Beale was the first to pounce on the loose ball and took a couple of touches before unleashing a reverse hit which looped up off keeper Tomas Santiago and into goal.
2016 Rio Olympics gold medallist Argentina were not one to back down as they struck back merely 55 seconds into the third quarter. Lucas Toscani, who was unmarked on the right, trapped a high ball beautifully before shooting on goal. Maico Casella sneaked in ahead of Jake Harvie to get the touch that put the ball past Charter.
Post match, Australia coach Colin Batch said he wished his forwards and midfielders would press higher, pointing out that they were often playing in a straight line which Argentina exploited.
Argentina’s third goal illustrated Batch’s point perfectly. They were able to play out from the back with some efficient passing with Lucas Vila then slaloming in from the right and finding Martin Ferreiro. The Argentine No 10 still had some work to do to get past Eddie Ockenden before finding the back of the goal.
Argentina held on resolutely even as Australia cranked up the pressure. The World No 1 side simply couldn’t find a way past the solid Argentine defence.
Just as it looked like Argentina would came away with three big points, Australia struck. Las Leones only had themselves to blame as Facundo Zarate’s high ball attempt was intercepted by Blake Govers who rifled in his shot beyond Santiago in goal.
Speaking after his side’s draw against Germany, Belgium coach Michel van den Heuvel suggested that the reason for the highly entertaining draws was that teams were not going all out in the pool stage yet.
“It’s the pool stage of the tournament. It’s about three games rather than just one game,” he said.
“If you see all the top teams, you don’t see them holding back. But it is still the pool game and so maybe, you keep some cards in your hands, that is possible. On the other hand, when we needed to show some cards, we did it in the last few minutes.”
And just like that over the course of three days, the World Cup delivered three high-quality draws between six of the best teams in the world.