FIH Hockey Pro League: Despite lack of attacking fluency, India ride on late surge to beat Argentina in shootout

Sundeep Misra
·7 min read

For the most part, India's first real contest, since the last game against Australia played 414 days back, was messy and disorderly. They woke up late, off a brilliant sashay in the Argentine circle by captain Manpreet Singh before Harmanpreet Singh slammed in a penalty corner with exactly six seconds left on the clock to equalise 2-2. India then proceeded to dismantle Olympic Champions Argentina 3-2 in the shoot-out to win with an overall score of 5-4 and clinch the first of two Pro League encounters.

On the table, India move ahead of Argentina up to fifth in the Pro League standings, with 12 points from seven matches. Argentina sit sixth, with 11 points from 11 games.

Argentina were more assured in the first two quarters, enjoying dominance in the midfield thus controlling the flow ensuring that India played with a foot in the defence rather than try and move up. Yet, opportunities were there for India quite early but Mandeep Singh and then Hardik Singh couldn't control or were caught in the wrong positions. India's midfield, their area of strength with players like Manpreet, Hardik, Nilakanta Sharma and Vivek Prasad couldn't figure out a rhythm as the hosts constantly turned over the game to peg India back. Midway, through the first quarter, Dilpreet Singh also had an opportunity but the control was lacking.

Argentina captain Pedro Ibarra was hit on the head with blood gushing immediately when he waded into a Mandeep-Gurjant move on top of the circle. There was no malice but Ibarra had to go off and only came back in the second quarter. Argentina moved better, created more chances and looked fluent when rotating the balls across the width of the pitch. Lucas Martinez kept the Indian defence busy while Nicolas Nicolas Keenan was doing the damage with his romps through the middle of the pitch.

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The numbers in the first quarter told their story with Argentina having four shots at goal to India's none. Circle entries don't really matter unless you test the goalkeeper, in this case the remarkable 41-year old Juan Vivaldi, who has been playing for the national team since 2001; players like Hardik, Dilpreet and Vivek Prasad were born around 1999-2000, a few years before Vivaldi's debut.

India's performance did improve in the second quarter but the thrust and finish that should have come from the sticks off Dilpreet, Mandeep, Gurjant wasn't seen. In terms of possession, India were ahead with 60 percent but the shots at goal were Argentina's domain. India took the lead in the 21st minute when Manpreet and Dilpreet moved in tandem with the ball rising dangerously off an Argentina defender. India had their first penalty corner (PC) and Harmanpreet Singh was on target to slot it between Vivaldi's left pad and the defender. At this moment, India were down to ten men with a yellow card being given to Hardik. In fact, cards would be a talking point for Indian coach Graham Reid at the team meeting. Much of the momentum was lost as India was down to nine and ten players in the last three quarters: Gurjant for a green in the third minute itself and then Hardik (yellow) in the 19th, Gurinder (green) in the 24th, Varun Kumar (yellow) in the 55th and Mandeep (yellow) in the 57th.

Argentina captain Ibarra was back in the second quarter and Argentina regained their poise at the back. Two minutes before the break, Argentina found the equaliser off a wonderful break move through the middle of the pitch with a stunning reverse hit from Martin Ferreiro, zipping past a shocked Sreejesh. 26 seconds left in the second quarter, Argentina got their second penalty corner when an Argentina forward was brought down with a lunge. The penalty corner flick was deflected off the Indian runner towards Ferreiro whose shot squeezed through the post and pad; an embarrassing let off by the Indian goalkeeper. Argentina led 2-1 at the end of the second quarter, the frustration visible on Indian coach Reid's face.

For much of the first two quarters, most Indian players were missing which included the forwards, midfield and to a certain extent the defence. Argentina were quite outstanding on the turnovers. In fact, a perfect example was provided by Keenan who came from behind and took a ball being controlled by Harmanpreet and turned it into an attack on the Indian side.

The lack of energy was visible upfront when a good move from Gurjant saw a weak, insipid reverse hit from Nilakanta. Manpreet was slowly coming into his own, leaving defensive work to move upwards and create not only moves but a few doubts in the Argentina midfield which till the middle of the third quarter had enjoyed supremacy.

In the middle of the fourth quarter, as Argentina looked tired, India gained in strength with Sumit, Lalit Upadhyay and Harmanpreet getting the space for a few forays upfront. The two yellow cards pegged Indian back as for almost seven minutes as they played with nine men.

But then, as in the past, many a time, the Indian captain produced a burst of magic. Weaving and bobbing past four Argentinians, a minute on the clock, Manpreet earned a penalty corner, India's third which led to a fourth PC with exactly six seconds remaining. Harmanpreet's flick knocked the stick off the Argentine runner but the Indian vice-captain was quick to pick up the rebound and shoot it past Vivaldi for the equaliser and his second goal.

India had amazingly turned it around at the death taking the match into a shoot-out where Harmanpreet and Shamsher Singh missed with Lalit, Rupinder and Dilpreet slotting their goals to ensure India clinch a thriller.

Japanese coach Siegfried Aikman watching in Kuala Lumpur where he has brought his team for a series of Test games against Malaysia felt 'India had to low a pace in the first two quarters.'

"They were not prepared for Argentina in the defence as a result if you see Argentina won most of the one-to-one situations early on in the match, thus exerting pressure on the Indians. But by the end, Argentina was looking tired and India refusing to give up won the exchange and also made less mistakes in the build-up."

Aikman also, as in the past, said that no team can now afford to sit on a one or two goal lead. And that was once again shown with India coming through in the last one minute.

"I do feel that India are two different sides when they play at home and away. At home, they ride on the energy of the supporters and create more. But away, they need to be sharper and alert because that energy that comes from your core group of fans is missing."

It's a point that Reid would do well to carry with him when the team leaves for Tokyo. With no overseas fans allowed, India would play without any of their fans. On the contrary, Japan being in India's pool would have the luxury of their fans inside the stadium.

But there are plenty of positives that Aikman saw. "I think the counter-attack was still good. They (India) break at a furious pace and that is the reason why the goal came in the dying seconds. But for India to dominate which they need to in the second game, they have to turn ball possession into creating more and not giving away turn-overs."

Indian captain, the man-of-the-match, said after the game: "I think the most important thing from today is that we never gave up. We were fighting until the last minute, and that is why we got a result here."

To keep up the momentum, India will now look to inject fluency, bring in finesse and ensure that the oddities, the freakish nature of getting five cards is not repeated.

Also See: FIH Pro League: Indian men’s hockey team returns to top level competition after a year against Argentina

India head coach Graham Reid hopes team can deliver results 'at Pro League level' against Argentina

Indian men's hockey team coach Graham Reid regrets missed opportunities against Argentina in 2nd match

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