Harpal Singh Bedi
Veteran goalkeeper PR Sreejesh brought off some incredible saves to enable India pip spirited New Zealand 3-2 in a pool A Hockey match that went down to the wire. The eight-time winners thus opened their Olympic campaign note collecting full three points on Saturday.
Though it was Rupinder Pal ,who gave his side the lead in the 10th minute and Harmanpreet extended it by scoring a brace in the 26th and 33rd minute it was experienced goalkeeper PR Sreejesh who saved the day for India with excellent work in the goal post to stop New Zealand from converting an equaliser in the dying minutes of the match.
India made an aggressive start to the match with Mandeep Singh winning a penalty corner (PC) for his side in the third minute after a good assist from Nilakanta Sharma, it was New Zealand who managed to draw first blood after Rupinder missed the target by a whisker while converting the PC. New Zealand’s Kane Russell made no such error as he successfully pumped the ball into India’s post to earn a 1-0 lead in the 6th minute.
Only minutes later, an infringement on the line cost New Zealand a penalty stroke. This time, the lanky Rupinder was bang on target fetching India a much-needed equalizer.
The first quarter was fought rather intensely as New Zealand kept India’s defence busy. They were awarded as many as four PCs towards the end of the quarter but ISreejesh at the post held sway to keep New Zealand from scoring.
Shaking off the early jitters, India looked more dangerous in the second quarter. They created two early chances to score but it was not until the 26th minute that India took a promising 2-1 lead. A good referral by team India saw them win a PC which was brilliantly converted through a sensational set piece.
A good interjection by Shamsher Singh, stopped well by Nilakanta Sharma was nudged away by Rupinder to Harmanpreet who struck the ball past New Zealand keeper with lightning speed.
India came back stronger in the third quarter creating some early chances. Forwards Mandeep Singh and Dilpreet Singh worked well in the frontline to create scoring opportunities. The attack helped in fetching another PC for India and the New Zealand defence could do little to stop Harmanpreet’s fantastic flick taking India’s lead to 3-1 in the 33rd minute. Though India was awarded another PC in the 36th minute, New Zealand keeper Leon Hayward managed a good save. However, in the 43rd minute, a lapse in India’s defence enabled New Zealand to bounce back with a well-struck field goal by Stephen Jenness who was set-up with a good assist from Nick Wilson from the right flank.
The final quarter was tense with both teams keeping the tempo up despite soaring temperature in Tokyo which recorded 33 degrees on game day. New Zealand stitched together a compact defence.
Their goalie Hayward continued to impress as he stopped striker Lalit Upadhyay from scoring the fourth goal. The dying minutes of the match was a battle of nerves particularly for India as they conceded back-to-back PCs. While Manpreet vital as the first rusher in New Zealand’s two attempts, Sreejesh proved just why he is one of the best keepers in the world when he made two match-winning saves that ensured India bagged three points.
“Winning three points in a competition like the Olympic Games is really important. I think we had a good second and third quarter but the first and fourth we struggled a little bit. When we watch the video later today, we will be able to find out what we need to get better at and surely there are going to be things we learn from today too. But at the end of the day, we haven’t played for 3-4 months in an international competition, that’s the reality. ” said chief coach Graham Reid:
As far as the weather was concerned, the players handled it really well. We probably could have put away the first few opportunities we created. It may have made the game a little less close. I think that is what we need to focus on. We did well in converting the PCs, but we need to look at reducing the numbers (of PCs) we were giving away.
About playing Australia tomorrow, they are always a tough competitor. I believe they had a shaky start today against Japan, is what I was told by third-party sources. We have half a day today to have a look at both the games. We have already prepared for Australia back in Bangalore but watching the video will always help us see what new tactics they have now. It will be a tough game tomorrow and our players are up for the challenge. It’s always good to win the first game at the Olympics and get the three points on board.” he added
in other Pool A matches
Australia beat Japan 5-3
Australia made a winning start to their quest for a second men’s hockey Olympic gold medal with a 5-3 victory over hosts Japan, but were given a real scare by the Samurais in a pulsating opening match at the Oi Hockey Stadium.
Tim Brand and Tom Craig put the Kookaburras into a 2-0 lead at the end of the first quarter, but a double from Kenta Tanaka either side of a strike from Yoshiki Kirishita gave Japan a shock 3-2 lead at half time. However, Australia controlled the third and fourth quarters, with Blake Govers, Aran Zalewski Daniel Beale all on target as the world number one ranked side claimed all three points.
“Obviously we wanted to do a bit better”, said Australia’s Daniel Beale. “We go 2-0 up, then go 3-2 down going into half-time (which) is obviously not what we want to do. So, it was really good that we were able to come out after half-time and get back to what we were doing well and just get the result.”
Japan’s Kenta Tanaka said: “We were close to overtaking the Australian team in the heat of the match but in the end we lost so there is a bit of regret. But we have to take this momentum to the next match. Scoring two goals gives me a huge amount of confidence.”
Argentina 1-1 Spain
Reigning Olympic champions Argentina could only claim a solitary point as they were held to a 1-1 draw by Spain. Los Leones took the lead midway through the second quarter due to Agustin Mazzilli’s field goal. Fascinatingly, Mazzilli scored Argentina’s last goal in Olympic competition, netting Argentina’s fourth against Belgium in the Rio 2016 final.
However, Argentina could not add to their tally and Spain, who were competitive throughout, claimed a crucial point when Pau Quemada rattled home a penalty corner eight minutes from full time.
Belgium beat Netherlands 3-1
Alexander Hendrickx scored a four-minute hat-trick to help reigning World champions Belgium fight back from a goal down to beat Low Countries rivals the Netherlands 3-1 in the opening match of Pool B.
Following a quiet opening two periods, Jeroen Hertzberger scored a wonderful individual effort to put the Oranje ahead early in the third quarter, but it was Hendrickx who would have the final say in the outcome.
Hendrickx netted two outstanding penalty corners either side of a penalty stroke as Belgium made a clear statement of intent with a hard-earned victory.
When asked how he feels about being considered as one of the best drag-flickers in the world, Hendrickx said: “I don’t think about that, what others think, I’m busy with what I do with my technique with flicking, thinking about something during the flick and then all the pressure falls away.”
Netherlands captain Billy Bakker said: “It’s not the result that we want, but it’s also not the way we want to perform as a team and that’s more something that we’re not really disappointed (about), but we need to be more focused on our own quality.