The match against Belgium on Sunday – India’s second in the World Cup – was one that the team’s coach Harendra Singh called “pre-quarterfinals”. Even if his team had lost to Belgium, it would’ve still had a path to the quarter-finals but that would’ve been a tricky, roundabout one – it would have to beat a team from Pool D (Germany/the Netherlands/Pakistan/Malaysia) in the crossover stage to get to the knockouts.
The threat of playing the crossover stage still exists for India but with a 2-2 draw against Belgium on Sunday, and a goal difference of five, they could possibly avoid it.
However, during the half-time interval on Sunday, a mild sense of panic seemed to brew within most Indian supporters inside the Kalinga hockey stadium. Their team was down by a goal and didn’t look like it could breach the Belgian defence, which was tough as teak.
By the time the first quarter had ended, India could enter their circle once. In the second phase of the match, they breached the Belgian circle again, couldn’t convert a half-chace (Dilpreet Singh’s drive from the right flank found the side netting). Belgium, in the same duration, had made six circle entries, three shots on goals, earned three penalty corners and converted one.
The numbers, hence, might explain the fear that consumed the stadium on Sunday.
India's tale of two halves
| Penalty corners
But coach Harendra Singh was poised, or at least appeared so, when he spoke during the half-time break. He’d observed what his team had done in the first two quarters, knew what it needed to do in the next two: protect the centre and pass aerially.
63% of Belgium’s circle entries in the first half were through the centre. And, in the second half, the Indian midfield closed this channel and forced the Red Lions to change their structure.
Their coach Shane McLeod and captain Thomas Briels said after the match that India played better in the second half. “India put more pressure in the second half and we couldn’t handle that. Luckily, we scored a [second] goal,” said Briels.
The Belgian defensive wall was hard to crack, hence the Indians passed the ball over it and had strikers stationed inside the circle to collect the passes and create chances. This strategy worked wonderfully for the hosts as they made a whopping 10 circle entries in the third quarter, had four shots on goals, got three penalty corners and scored off a penalty stroke. With the midfield settled in, India’s passing improved too.
McLeod summed up India’s third-quarter transformation, thusly: “There’s a psychology in sport: when you are leading, you play a certain way and you repeat what you are doing and if you’re trailing you do something new. India played with more confidence. They played like they had nothing to lose and did a lot more with the ball and we struggled to keep hold of the ball.”
The momentum-shift in the third quarter led to another goal for India early in the final quarter – when Simranjeet Singh deflected a superb pass by Kothajit Singh from the left.
With five minutes to finish, trailing by a goal, the Belgians withdrew their goalkeeper to bolster their attack. The double-edged sword worked in their favour as Simon Gougnard silenced the vociferous Kalinga crowd with a 56th minute equaliser that denied India a third straight win over Belgium in Bhubaneswar.
India have a significant advantage over Belgium to top Pool C. They have a goal difference of five, compared to Belgium’s one. And, because they will play the last match of their Pool – against Canada – they will precisely know what they need to do to qualify directly for the quarter-finals.
“I think it is wide open”, said Harendra. “With goal difference we are plus five and they are plus one, but it all comes down to that last game. We can forget about the two previous games, the next match is the one that will decide if we are in the quarter-final.”