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September 29, 2000
India defeat Argentina to finish 7thThe Rediff Team
In Stadium Australia, India's misery reached a peak this morning as the men's and women's relay teams crashed out in ignominous fashion, quickly followed by Gurmeet Kaur in the women's javelin.
Perhaps that is why India's 3-1 win over Argentina in the men's section of the hockey tournament created a sense of quiet happiness. Perhaps it is just the silver-lining-clutching of a country that, more through official incompetence allied to connivance (why does every single Indian athlete perform under his or her personal best in the Olympics? Could it be that these "bests" were carefully cooked up by the officials to ensure qualification, which would in turn ensure that they could go to Sydney along with the athletes?) has endured enormous embarassment.
Then again, it could be because India, with neither pressure nor expectations to weight their sticks down, suddenly rediscovered the skills that once made them the team to beat at the highest level.
A question that has repeatedly cropped up in this tournament is, does India still have the skills to compete at the highest level? That question was answered in emphatic fashion -- yes it does. So then what does it lack? Again, the answer became obvious in this last game -- self-belief. Today, they had it, and they looked a completely different side from the one that played earlier.
The changed outlook could also be due to changed gameplans and lineups. India yet again rested individualistic forward Mukesh Kumar and off form skipper Ramandeep Singh. Dhanraj was given the freedom to play forward, as opposed to the defensive, withdrawn-forward role he had been playing thus far. Baljit Dillon was shifted from the left, where he tended to get himself boxed into a corner, into the middle, as centre-half and playmaker.
The changes worked (they also raised a question about Bhaskaran's tactical sense, in keeping Dhanraj from leading the attack, and shoving Dillon out on the left). Dhanraj was the senior professional, leading the charges with fluent runs and superb off-the-ball running that drew the defence towards him and allowed the others more room to play in. Dillon settled into the playmaker role, initiating moves from midfield, then making flanking runs to join the forwards in finishing them off. And with the Indian attack clicking, the defence rarely came under the kind of intense scrutiny that characterised previous games.
India started off with a penalty corner in the 2nd minute, the first of four in the game, but Riaz's hit was well padded out by an Argentine goalkeeper who, on the day, was on top of his game. In rapid succession, Deepak Thakur, Baljit Dillon, Sameer Dad and Dhanraj Pillay finished off fine moves with good cracks at goal, but it wasn't till the 30th minute that the Argentine goal fell. Dhanraj, Dillon and Sameer Dad combined nicely to work the ball into the Argentine zone, Dhanraj in mid-run stopped the ball dead and raced off to the right drawing two defenders after him, Dillon moved into the vacant space and pushed the ball to the left and Deepak Thakur finished off the fine move with a clean strike.
With India using short passing and possession play, the Argentines were reduced to breakaway moves, which resulted in penalty corners as the thin Indian defence (thin, given that on the day the Indians were playing well upfield) was stretched to keep the ball out. The dangerous Jorge Lombi threatened, but the Indian defence ran the ball down well and Jude Menezes capped a fine tournament with a series of very good saves.
India, 1-0 up at half-time, kept up the pace in the second, Dillon, Dad and Thakur taking early cracks at goal to set the pace. There was a brittle look about the Argentine defence under this wave of assaults, and the inevitable second goal came when Dillon, Dad and Thakur produced a burst of short passing inside the Argentine zone, the finish coming when the ball was swept to the right corner for Sukhbir Singh Gill to strike home.
Two goals up, and India relaxed, allowing the Argentines back into the game. A 52nd minute penalty corner saw the Indians so relaxed in defence, that they did not even chase the ball down off the push, allowing Jorge Lombi all the room he needed to sweep the ball in to the right corner of the goal. Lombi, wearing jersey number 13, notched up his 13th goal of the tournament, proving to be the marksman to watch in the men's half of the event.
That goal against them appeared to serve as a wake-up call -- the Indians promptly stepped up a gear, took over possession and began outplaying the Argentines in the midfield and inside the zone. Dhanraj Pillay, playing throughout the day at a relaxed, easy pace, produced a fine solo run, weaving through the defence before releasing to Dillon and immediately moving into space to receive the return pass and slot home to round off the Indian tally.
For India, it had all ended as it began -- with a fluent win over Atlanta 1996 bugbears Argentina. For the fans, there was relief, some joy -- and a whole heap of unanswered questions.
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