In their last match against India before the Olympic Qualifers, Russia had lost 10-0. It was a scoreline that lulled not just all watchers but also perhaps the Indian team into a sense of complacency.
Most people turned up at Kalinga expected a goal-fest but were instead treated to a fascinating match thanks to the enterprise shown by Russia.
India turned out eventual 4-2 winners and they will take a two-goal lead into the second match on Saturday but the scoreline could have been a lot different.
India took the early lead through a penalty stroke from Harmanpreet Singh, who sent the Russian goalkeeper Marat Gafarov the wrong way to give the home side a 1-0 lead in the fifth minute.
It seemed like the goal would open the flood gates but instead, the Russians who struck back with the equaliser in the 17th minute.
An overhead pass caught Rupinder Paul Singh napping in the Indian defence but Andrey Kuraev picked up the loose ball and cut across the top of the circle before guiding his shot into the bottom left corner.
India weren’t at their fluent best and the goal seemed to shake them up even more. But it also produced a reaction.
With just six minutes left in the first half, Mandeep Singh created some space for himself, escaped his marker and thrashed a backhand strike into the bottom left corner. The lead was restored but Russia ensured no further damage was done before the interval.
In the second half, the Russians continued to push India. The third quarter went goalless but the visitors had some good chances early on.
Still, as the match went into the fourth quarter, it was difficult to pick a winner.
But SV Sunil’s goal in the 48th minute gave the hosts some breathing space and Mandeep’s second in the 53rd minute made it closer to the scoreline many were expecting.
Russia weren’t done though. They got back another goal through a Semen Matkovskiy penalty corner in the last minute of the match to reduce the deficit to two goals ahead of the second match on Saturday.
A special mention must be made for Russian goalkeeper Gafarov’s brilliant game. Even in the dying seconds, he came up with three brilliant saves and while Russia still lost handily, it still keeps them in the tie. Going into the match, that was more than what most would have expected.
India would know that they weren’t as good as they can be on the day and their challenge would be to find a higher gear on Saturday.
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