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September 26, 2000
So near, so farCedric D'Souza
India were leading till the 68th minute, and then blew away the opportunity to make the semifinals. We committed hara-kiri, just as we did in Seoul in 1988 when all we needed was a draw against Great Britan and went on to lose the game.
What went wrong? Everything! We succumbed to pressure, and as far as I was concerned the constant rain was more detrimental to our fortunes than for the physically more robust Poles -- they did adjsut to the wet conditions far better than us.
The game: Let us look at the chances that came our way -- we should have wrapped up the game in the first 20 minutes, but their goalkeeper Pobuta put up a stout-hearted display in frustrating us.
Firstly closing down and cutting off the angle when Mukesh received a lucky bounce off the sweeper and with only their goalkeeper to beat, hit wide. Then thwarting Samir Dad when the Indian went one on one with the Polish goalie and flicked, but found Pobuta in the way. Then blocking another Mukesh try, the rebound of which went to Dhanraj for Potuba to save yet again, this time from point blank region.
All this brought back memories of Atlanta, when we outplayed Argentina and still managed to lose.
The second half was again a story of missed chances. Mukesh was the culprit yet again, missing two sitters, while Deepak Thakur slogged one over the bar when all he needed was a firm push. Some brilliant stickwork in midfield, especially the wall-passing bouts between Mukesh and Dhanraj and between Deepak Thakur and Baljit Dillon brought back vintage memories. The only difference was that in those days, such bouts would end in goals, whereas here they provided excitement, but no results.
Our goal: The goal we ended up scoring began as a beautiful move between Dhanraj and Mukesh, a bout of wall-passing into the Polish D, finding a defender's foot and resulting in a penalty corner. Tirkey's first hit was blocked by the Polish charge out of goal, but he did get the ball back and scored over Pobuta, much to the delight of a full-house Indian crowd that had come to the venue braving the rain.
Their goal: Their equaliser came from a furious counter-attack, with fast rotation of play changing the point of attack and unsettling our defense. The final release was a diagonal cross from the left, which went past a panicky and badly positioned Ramandeep to find Tomasz Cichy, who gratefully accepted the gift and slammed the ball goalwards. Jude was unlucky to see the ball richocet off his left pad into the net.
What Poland did right: In a word, plenty. They used their height and reach to good advantage, by intercepting common balls and tackling us consistently. Their man to man marking was excellent, and they used the flat stick to maximum effect. Not once did we see their defenders keep their sticks up in the air -- in fact they had their sticks down even when retreating. The produced very quick starts which caught us off guard. They used the rolling substitution to the fullest. They showed a wonderful never say die attitude. They consistently produced long, penetrative balls that transferred defense into attack. They gave a good display of precision passing with minimum ball carrying, which meant there were very few turnovers. They attacked us on the left, pressurising our players on the trap, coming up on the wrong side and robbing us of the ball.
What India did wrong: Apart from the misssed chances, our defensive play was very shaky and panicky, especially after taking the lead -- we conceeded a spate of penalty corners towards the end.
There was excessive ball carrying, and losing possession especially when approaching their 25-yard-line. This made us susceptible to the long counter-attacking balls.
When we played first time passes we sent panic waves into their defense and created many goal-scoring opportunities. This should have been our game plan, which we should have pursued in the second half as well.
Too many times, our defenders were watching the ball, with their sticks up in the air.
We knew Pillay would be a marked man, but we did not use him as a decoy with off the ball running, to create space for through passes.
We forgot that diving tackles should never be done in our 25 -- we gave away far too many penalty corners by silly mistakes and defensive lapses.
There were too many mistakes, and not enough of the kind of strategy that was visible when we played Australia. Fire in the belly was not visible, what we could see was tension and anxiety to get into the semis.
Mukesh made the cardinal mistake of throwing his stick when warned by the referee, and that got him a yellow card which kept him out for the better part of 12 minutes. We were reduced to 10 men, and they scored. We should always know the strengths and weak points of the umpires and act accordingly, which we failed to do. For example, in India most umpires do not penalize you for hacking a player, but if you body block you get a yellow card. Internationally, the opposite is true.
In the last three minutes, the defensive plan should have been to close out everything, by playing possession hockey and with tight marking -- but we had no strategy at all.
In conclusion, although our hopes have been dashed, we need to gather ourselves and remain focussed for the rest of the tournament. We still have to play for the 5-8 placings, and I sincerely hope we do not have a repeat of Atlanta, when we lost focus after failing to reach the semis, and slid to eighth position.
Come on, guys -- although it is a sad day for Indian hockey, show them that you are made of sterner stuff, and better our Atlanta performance.
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