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September 23 2000
India squeeze past Spain
The Rediff Team
India defeated Spain 3-2 in its Pool B match in the men's hockey event at the hockey centre in Sydney. That is the good news.
The bad news is that the quality of India's play on the day is likely to give serious worries to coach Bhaskaran, and to Indian hockey fans hopeful of seeing the team progress into the semifinals, and beyond.
The statistics alone are alarming - - Spain, which enjoyed possession for most of the game, had 10 tries at goal (converting one) to three tries by India (no conversions). Spain also had 7 penalty-corners to India's three, though here the silver lining for India lay in the fact that India converted two of its three penalty-corners.
The problem for India lay in the defence and midfield, where, yet again, Ramandeep Singh proved to be a very weak link. This led to the Indian goal coming under pressure early, and often - - which in turn forced Dhanraj Pillay and, to a lesser extent, Mukesh Kumar, to fall back and help shore it up.
With Dhanraj playing deep in his own half for most of the game and only going forward on the breaks, the Spanish defence was rarely under pressure, which meant they could afford to come almost up to the half-line, and feed their forwards with a constant stream of passes.
India should in fact have been at least one goal down inside the first ten minutes. Pablo Pol Amat, always dangerous in the Spanish forward line, produced a brilliant run in the 10th minute and took a crack at goal, only for Jude Menezes to pull off a reflex save, just about managing to get his extended pad in the way of the goal-bound shot.
A penalty-corner resulted, though, and Menezes had to get back in the act, to keep the scoresheet blank.
India seems to have this habit of getting a second wind after an early save by Menezes, and here again, they dominated play for the next 15 minutes or so. This period brought India's first goal, when a dangerous Dhanraj move, picking up a loose ball and dribbling through the defence, saw the goalkeeper bring him down. A penalty stroke was given, and Dillon converted with a lifted push into the top right corner of the net.
Dhanraj almost made it 2-0 up with a fine solo down the centre off a Mukesh pass, but his hard shot on the run found the goalkeeper's pads.
In the 22nd minute, Spain equalised. A series of raids on the Indian goal finally produced a penalty corner, which Xavier Ribas converted on the second attempt.
India were forced to defend as Spain went on a flat-out attack after getting the equaliser. A Spanish goal seemed inevitable, but in their drive to go ahead, Spain let themselves open to the fast counter. One such, which saw three Indian forwards racing towards the opposition goal with only two defenders in opposition, ended in a penalty corner and, for the second time in succession, India converted - - this time, Dilip Tirkey taking the hit and striking clean.
After the breather, India came out firing, and the first few minutes saw some good raids deep into enemy turf. One such move opened up the Spanish defence, and forced the foul that saw the referee whistle for the penalty-corner.
Dillon, who had earlier got India's first goal off a penalty stroke, converted, and India seemed to be sitting pretty at 3-1.
But then Spain launched its first offensive, the defence was ripped apart in the 48th minute, and Pep Sanchez, feeding off an Amat pass, slammed in to reduce the margin.
That shook the Indians, panic set in and, as in the first half, Dhanraj began playing deeper and deeper inside his own half, to cover for the defense. Once Dhanraj was effectively ruled out of the attack, Spain took over the midfield, using it as a launch pad to set its forwards off down either flank.
One expected the Indian goal to fall several times during this period, and only luck (a Xavier Ribas shot hit the post) and some sensational goalkeeping by Jude Menezes kept the Indian lead intact.
The last 15 minutes of the second half saw as many as half a dozen tries on the Indian goal by the marauding Spanish forwards - - the final whistle, with India hanging on to its 3-2 lead, thus coming as a huge relief for the Indian fans who had flocked to the stadium in big numbers.
Since in the final analysis it is the result that is important, India can delight in the three points it accumulated here, which put it on track for a semifinal place. India now needs a win in its final game, against Poland on Tuesday, to seal that berth.
But from the point of view of further progress in the tournament, it needs saying that unless the coach and the team can address the problem of a shaky defense, India's campaign could come to grief. That the defense is noticeably weak is bad enough - - when Dhanraj is forced to assist the backline, it also takes the sting out of the Indian attack, and that merely compounds a situation that is bad enough to start with.
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