India rode their luck to survive the frantic last five minutes that tested their resolve and defensive skills to hold hosts Netherlands to a 1-1 draw and book their berth in the final against Australia in the Champions Trophy hockey tournament in Breda on Saturday.
With seven points from four matches, India needed just a draw to advance to the summit clash for the second successive time and it looked like the berth was sealed when Mandeep Singh found the opening goal in the 47th minute. But the hosts came back to equalise in the 55th minute through Thierry Brinkman, leading to a five minute period in which the Indians had to defend for their life.
And the whole stadium erupted into wild celebrations when Jeroen Hertzberger found the net in the 58th minute, only for the video umpire to turn it down because the free hit leading to the goal wasn’t taken correctly.
But for those two errors, the Indian defence stood strong through the hour-long end-to-end encounter which the Dutch had to win to pip the Indians to qualify for the final, which will be a repeat of last edition’s summit clash.
Aware of the perils of playing for a draw against the pacy Dutch team, Indian were off the blocks early for probably the first time in the tournament and could have scored in the first three minutes.
SV Sunil had the first opportunity to find the net in the second minute but the striker couldn’t control the ball on the goal mouth. A minute later, Harmanpreet Singh’s dragflick was well saved by Dutch custodian San van der Ven.
At the other end, PR Sreejesh was called into action a couple of minutes later to deny Seve van Ass from a close range.
Despite the high tempo of the match, there were hardly any chances created by both teams in the first quarter apart from a penalty corner for India which was again well saved by van der Ven.
The Dutch began to press higher from the second quarter but Sreejesh first blocked Robbert Kemperman’s reverse hit and then easily parried off the ensuing penalty corner.
It was only because of the heroics of the Indian custodian that Harendra Singh’s men could go into the half time without conceding a goal as the 30-year-old saved two more penalty corners and then left his line to deny Thijs van Dam from a one-on-one situation two minutes from the half an hour mark.
Though coach Harendra spoke about taking their chances after the half time, it looked like one-way movement for the ball as the hosts continued to attack relentlessly.
To the credit of the Indian defence, led by Sreejesh, they did not wilt under pressure and kept their structure. This meant that the Dutch did not really have many scoring chances and the only real opportunity that fell to van Dam, the goalkeeper was quick to block it.
India’s only chance in the third quarter came through a counter from the left when Sunil released Mandeep inside the striking circle but he was crowded out by three Dutch defenders before he could control the ball and attempt a shot.
Defence stands strong
The striker finally gave India the lead two minutes into the fourth quarter when he pounced on the rebound following a Harmanpreet drag flick to hit the ball home.
The hosts finally managed to breach Sreejesh’s defence six minutes from time when Brinkman benefited from a slight deflection of Amit Rohidas’ stick for the ball to balloon over the goalkeeper’s shoulder in the goal.
Mandeep could have restored India’s lead within a minute but van der Ven came up with a brilliant save. The Dutch felt that they had found the winner two minutes from time when a quickly taken free hit was deflected by Jeroen Hertzberger. But the video umpire adjudged that the ball was not clearly stopped while taking the free hit.
The hosts earned three penalty corners thereafter but Hertzberger could not find the net again, clearing India’s path to only their second final of this competition.
With this edition of the Champions Trophy supposed to be the last one, Indians now have a chance to sign off with a title if they could beat the only team they have lost to in the group stage.
Argentina beat Australia
In the day’s earlier match, Olympic Champions Argentina rode on the hat-trick of penalty corner specialist Gonzalo Peillat to defeat Australia 3-2 and kept alive their hopes of winning at least a bronze medal.
Argentina needed a win to stay in medal contention after their 1-4 loss against Pakistan and Peillat put them in the driver’s seat converting penalty corners in the 13th, 21st and 51st minute.
Australia, who had resorted parity after the first goal within three minutes through Tim Brand, managed to reduce the deficit within minute of Peillat’s third goal through the same striker but could not avoid a defeat.
Argentina will now face the Netherlands for the bronze medal play-off.