India knew their task even before they took to the field at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar. With England beating Spain 4-0 in their match, India needed to beat Wales by at least eight goals to pip England to the Pool D top spot on goal difference.
In the end they laboured to beat a spirited Welsh team 4-2 to finish second in Pool D and go into the crossovers of the FIH Men’s Hockey World Cup.
Coach Graham Reid has often called himself a mentality coach wherein the mental preparation of his team is as important as the physical one. On Thursday, the Australian admitted that the pressure of scoring eight goals did get to his players even though there was no pressure put on them by the coaching staff.
“The quality of the skills needed to be increased. I think maybe we tried putting too much pressure on ourselves and that’s what happened,” Reid said after the match.
“No pressure came from me. The line today was ‘we just need to go out and play our normal game’. Of course you have scoreboard pressure. We needed to create opportunities and put them away when we did. That gives you the opportunity to press later in the game and get those numbers. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get those two or three early goals to be able to put pressure later in the game,” he added.
In the pre-match press conference, Reid had spoken about the need for his forwards to be calm. Play ‘aaram se’, as he put it.
Perhaps it was the pressure of needing to score eight goals that got to them but ‘calm’ wasn’t how one would describe the Indian forwards on Thursday.
Reid was also tight-lipped about Hardik Singh’s availability ahead of the game, saying that he would make a call on matchday. Hardik, who had injured his hamstring in the England match, came out for the warm-up with the team but restricted himself to putting down cones and catching stray balls. How India would have loved to have Hardik on the field on Thursday.
Pool D final standings
Having seen England thump Spain, India came charging out of the blocks putting Wales under pressure from the first minute itself. But there was no method to this madness. As soon as India reached the Welsh 23m line, their passes went wayward and the first touch abandoned them as they tried to force the issue instead of a disciplined build-up play.
As the quarter went on, even the vociferous crowd began to feel nervous. There were times when an eerie silence would descend on the over 15,000 fans as India tried to play out from the back, looking to find the perfect pass which would unlock the Welsh defence.
India had 82% possession at half time with 12 circle penetrations and just two penalty corners. But they did manage to take the lead from the second of those penalty corners. Harmanpreet Singh’s drag-flick was blocked by the first rusher but Shamsher Singh got on the end of the rebound to unleash a powerful low shot beyond Toby Reynolds-Cotterill in the Welsh goal.
At half-time Reid urged his forwards to be better at executing their skills and that’s what he got in the second half. Akashdeep Singh drove towards goal from the halfline and played a one-two with Mandeep Singh before smashing the ball into the far corner. That beautiful flowing move showed what the Indian forwards are capable of when they don’t let the pressure get to them.
The goal gave India a fresh injection of energy as they put more men ahead in search of goals. That, however, became their undoing.
Wales exploited the space behind with high balls and won a penalty corner after PR Sreejesh and Jarmanpreet Singh were deemed to have fouled a Welsh player. Gareth Furlong made no mistake from the PC, getting a powerful low shot past Sreejesh. Minutes later, Wales won another PC and although Sreejesh made the save off Furlong, Jacob Draper was at hand to smash in the rebound.
“As the match went on, it became more expansive and we got more space to run into. We have some quick players and we utilised that very well,” Draper said after the match.
“They defended really well. They threw everything at it. We still created a lot of opportunities that we should’ve put away. I think we kept (Wales) in the game and that gave (the opponents) oxygen. That’s what happens when you have such a good crowd. That helps (the opposition) as well. Gives them a bit of adrenaline, they get bit of belief,” Reid said.
India went from targeting an 8-0 win to fighting to win the match.
Once again, Akashdeep came to India’s rescue. He played a one-two with Sukhjeet Singh before rocketing in a reverse hit to restore India’s lead. The Indian forwards found their mojo in the fourth quarter with Mandeep, Sukhjeet, Lalit Upadhyay combining well with each other only to be denied by Reynolds-Cotterill.
Wales took off Reynolds-Cotterill in the final minute of the match as they chased an equaliser and India fortuitously won a penalty corner. With no goalkeeper to beat, Harmanpreet smashed the ball straight down the middle to get his first goal of the tournament.
India secured a win but they left a lot to be desired. “This was not our best game today to be honest. We know that we can perform much better than this,” Harmanpreet admitted after the match.
On Sunday, India will face New Zealand in the crossover. Had they topped the pool, India would have had six days between their final group match and the quarterfinal match allowing them time to rest, strategise well and crucially, allow Hardik to recover sufficiently from his injury. Instead, a tricky clash against New Zealand awaits them.