The finale on Sunday was fitting for a tournament that’s older than all the players who participated in its last-ever match. The final edition of the Champions Trophy, first played in 1978, was won by the Australians after 60 minutes of intense battle and a nervy shootout against a spirited Indian side in Breda on Sunday.
The final had it all: quality, drama and an extraordinary display of resilience, especially by the defenders from both sides. It was a shame that this match needed a victor, for there was nothing much to separate the two sides. Perhaps even the Australians, who won the title for the 15th time, would agree to this.
Having played (and lost 2-3) to the top-ranked team in the group stage, India knew exactly what they must do to fancy themselves a chance in the final. The midfield, which was vulnerable, in the previous three games (possibly due to Manpreet Singh’s niggle), was more active. The defence, which has been solid throughout the tournament, was near-impenetrable in the final. And, the attackers – Mandeep Singh, SV Sunil and Dilpreet Singh – were on top of their games, too.
But the day belonged to the Australian goalkeeper Tyler Lovell, who kept out a desperate Indian attack in the final quarter and kept his cool in the shootout to deny India the win. He’d done the same in the 2016 final, helping his team win the shootout 3-1 (after a goalless draw).
“India played well [in the regulation time],” he said after the shootout. “I was pretty confident after the 2016 final. I was just planning to stay calm and waiting for them to make a mistake.”
The few last-second lapses Sreejesh and his men made in the shootout might have cost them their last opportunity to win the Champions Trophy. But the way they have played over the last 10 days will boost India’s confidence ahead of two important tournaments – Asian Games and World Cup – that are lined up this year.
Along with hosts Netherlands, India conceded the least number of goals in the tournament (7). A lot of credit, rightly, goes to the extraordinary goalkeeping of PR Sreejesh, who single-handedly denied the Belgians a victory in the group stage. On a couple of occasions this tournament – including once in the final – the Indians had a moment of brainfade, which allowed the opposition to breach the defence and take on Sreejesh. But the Indian skipper was alert on both instances to prevent the opposition from scoring.
Least goals conceded
But Sreejesh, in this tournament, was well-supported by his group of defenders. Chief among them was Surender Kumar, who was exceptional against the Netherlands in a final-deciding game. He and his colleagues in defence – Birendra Lakra, Harmanpreet Singh, Varun Kumar and Amit Rohidas – formed a fortress that the opponents found tough to breach. That they conceded only three field goals in six games is a testimony to their brilliance in defence.
Even whilst defending Penalty Corners, the Indians never shied away from putting their bodies on the line – surging in front of the striker to deny the angles. The forward line, too, swiftly made their way to the back often, trying to intercept the ball from opposition. The men in blue’s solid defensive structure will perhaps be the biggest takeaway for coach Harendra Singh.
Youngsters excel in forward line
Except Ramandeep Singh, all of India’s goal-scorers in the Champions Trophy are aged below 25 (Ramandeep is exactly 25). Vivek Prasad, who equalised for his team in the final against the world’s top-ranked side, is just 18.
Of course, goals might be mere numbers and won’t necessarily indicate the players’ true potential, but the way Mandeep Singh and Dilpreet Singh played in the forward line augurs well for Harendra Singh’s team.
Mandeep, with his incredible agility and match-awareness, has always been a lurking danger in the opposition circle. He, along with Harmanpreet, were India’s top-scorers with three goals each.
Harmanpreet has shown the potential to become his team’s best penalty corner specialist. But the revelation of the tournament was 18-year-old Dilpreet.
He didn’t get the ball often but when he did, it was a delight to watch him run, stop, swivel, playing tricks with his hockey stick and trying to befuddle the defence. He scored only once in the tournament – against Pakistan – but that was one of the best goals in the tournament.
Midfield woes sorted out
Coming into the final, the midfield looked a little vulnerable with Manpreet not being able to play at his best because of a niggle and Sardar burdened with more responsibility. But on the day it mattered, the Indian midfielders played their best game.
Having slowed down with age, Sardar can’t be the playmaker of the team anymore. He couldn’t do it with much success when Manpreet wasn’t at his best in the previous three games. But after the game against Pakistan, Manpreet, in Sunday’s final, was once again playing at his best.
So, Sardar was mostly holding the ball, which he did to good effect. Young Vivek Prasad’s performance in the final would also please coach Harendra.
In the Commonwealth Games, India’s game dipped in the games that mattered the most. After an unbeaten run in the group stage, they lost the match that could have put them in the final and the match that could have earned them the bronze medal.
Of course, they lost on Sunday as well. But only after playing their best game of the tournament, making the world’s best team sweat. Despite the defeat, Harendra would be happy with the way his boys have performed in the biggest game of his first major tournament as a coach.