Belgium has rarely hit a bump in the tournament, shown a machine-like efficiency and, hence, have been undefeated thus far. The Netherlands stuttered at the start, dominated lower-ranked teams, survived the rigours of two, tight back-to-back contests.
On Sunday, the two teams will meet in the final of the 14th Hockey World Cup championship with the former looking for their first title while the latter hoping to end a 20-year-wait for their fourth crown. In the semifinals, Belgium vanquished England 6-0, while the Netherlands emerged victors in a heart-stopping contest, which had to be decided via a sudden death, against defending champion Australia.
There march to the final isn’t a surprise. A fair number of bets, it is safe to assume, would have been placed on these two teams (Belgium, ranked third in the world and the Netherlands, fourth) making the final. There isn’t much that separate the two sides.
“These are two teams that play a relatively similar style,” said the Netherlands’ coach Max Caldas ahead of the final clash. “These are two teams that like to attack. We enjoy the rivalry; they attack and we attack, a lot of open play. We are going to enjoy that for sure.”
Attack, as the Dutch coach said, is a key area of strength for both teams. And the numbers offer proof. The teams are tied hitherto for the most number of goals (22) in the tournament. The Dutchmen have a little more shots on goals per match and a better average of circle entries. But they are second to Belgium in a key aspect: penalty corner conversions.
Belgium v The Netherlands
|SHOTS ON GOALS||71||80|
Belgium’s penalty corner conversion rate of 30% in this tournament isn’t astounding either. But it’s adequate. Against England in the semi-finals, they scored off all their penalty corners. Their drag-flicker Alexander Hendrickx’s leading the goal-scorers’ chart with seven goals (all scored off penalty corners).
The Netherlands’ PC conversion rate of 14.3%, meanwhile, is a cause of concern. Of course, one could point out their 22 goals and say “it doesn’t matter how goals come as long as they do.” But it isn’t easy to score field goals against a defensively solid Belgium – only thrice in this tournament they have conceded field goals.
And, the Netherlands have struggled against defensively adept sides. Their only defeat of the tournament was against Germany (1-4). And, Belgium, according to their coach Shane McLeod, have a defensive structure similar to Germany’s.
In Arthur van Doren, FIH’s player of the year (2017), Arthur de Sloover and Loick Luypaert, they have three of the world’s best defenders. Seve van Ass and company will have to toil to breach the Belgian iron-curtain.
Speaking of toil, the Dutchmen played an energy-sapping – physically and mentally – semi-final against Australia. Belgium, meanwhile, cruised to a 6-0 win in a match that ended a couple of hours before the Netherlands’. They will, hence, be better-rested.
In World Cups
Matches: 3, Belgium won: 0, the Netherlands won: 3
Last five games
- Belgium 3-4 The Netherlands in a Test match (November 2018)
- Belgium 1-6 The Netherlands at Champions Trophy (June 2018)
- Belgium 3-0 The Netherlands at HWL Final (December 2017)
- Belgium 2-4 The Netherlands at EuroHockey Championship (August 2017)
- Belgium 5-0 The Netherlands at EuroHockey Championship (August 2017)
Weight of history
First-time finalists Belgium might, however, be burdened by history. They have been on a path of redemption over the last decade and are within striking distance of glory. But they have stumbled on momentous occasions. Two years ago, in their first-ever gold medal match at the Rio Olympics, they went down 2-4 to Argentina. In the last World Cup in The Hague, they missed out on a semi-final spot by a point. They’d missed out the last-four spot at London, too.
The Netherlands, meanwhile, are seeking to reclaim lost glory. It’s been two decades since they won their last World Cup gold medal. But they’ve reached the final six times and won it thrice. Their coach Caldas, however, downplayed the talk of history and Belgium’s inexperience at the big stage.
“We don’t look at the past, we care for the present,” he said. “Belgium has not played a final at the World Cup, yet. But if you look at the stats, they are the most experienced team here. They play tough games, close games, and they have been a force to reckon with in last years. They are going to fight, that’s for sure. You can expect a spectacle.”