Hyderabad: It always hurts when you are on a losing side. I could feel for this Graham Reid-coached Indian team that went down to the superior Belgium 2-5 in the semifinals of Tokyo Olympics on Tuesday. India will now have to fight for the bronze medal against Germany while Australia and Belgium clash for the gold medal match.
Nevertheless this was the finest performance by an Indian hockey team in Olympics as they reached the semifinals after a gap of 49 years. After an exhilarating first quarter India lost the plot and surrendered the initiative to the well-organized Belgians, who came up with fine tactics and executed the plans brilliantly to flatten India.
Belgium were sharp and made good use of the open spaces, thanks to the poor show by the Indian midfield. Skipper Manpreet Singh failed to galvanize the team. They began nicely even as Loick Luypaert (2nd minute) struck in the second minute for Belgium. But India came back strongly. Gurjant Singh called for referral of a Belgian player’s infringement and India got a penalty corner. They created pressure and were awarded another one.
Harmanpreet Singh equalized with a clean shot with the second one for the equaliser. India were on the ascendency. It looked smooth. They even went ahead as a move on the right by the hard-working Amit Rohidas, whose pass was nicely met by Mandeep Singh, who swerved and hit the ball into the goal. It was 2-1 in favour of India.
But, somehow India lost the plot after the second goal. They invited pressure with unimaginative play. The midfield failed to show the urgency. They fumbled and gave some easy balls to the Belgians, who slowly began to take control of the match.
The Indian defence of Rohidas, Harmanpreet, Rupinderpal Singh and Varun had to work overtime as the Belgians mounted pressure and conceded too many short corners for comfort.
The dangerous Alexander Hendrickx blasted in the first of his three goals to derail India’s plans.
Perhaps goalkeeper PR Sreejesh was slow in narrowing the gap to his right and allowed the ball to go in.
At half-time it was 2-2. Coach Reid clearly told his boys to keep things simple. But instead they began to make mistakes and Belgium called the shots. They had clear plans. They would storm the Indian citadel and their forwards would manufacture short corners by targeting the legs of the defenders in the ‘D’ area. It became a routine pattern.
Rohidas, one of the best rushers of the world, tried his best to stop the penalty corners but it was in vain. On the other hand, the Indian forwards were off the mark after their fine show against Great Britain. They did not even try to get the penalty corners as the strong Belgians blunted the Indian attack with a tight game.
The Belgians virtually pitched their camp in the Indian territory. India’s defence crumbled and Belgium got a plethora of short corners. Hendrickx pumped in two more goals through short corners to complete a fine-hat-trick and John-John Dohmen completed the humiliation with a 60th minute goal.
Indians contrived to lose as Belgium turned the tables with a disciplined game from the third quarter.
(The author, N Mukesh is a three-time Hockey Olympian)
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