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Spain hold the edge in final
Anand Philar | March 12, 2004 18:41 IST
Riding high after taming the mighty Pakistanis in the semi-finals, Spain are hoping to turn the clock back when they meet The Netherlands in the final of the men's Olympic hockey qualifying tournament in Madrid on Saturday.
It has been a while since Spain touched the heights of the 1996-98 season, when they reached the final of the Atlanta Olympics and the Utrecht World Cup. On both occasions, however, they lost to the Dutch.
Last year, Spain reached the final of the European Championships in Barcelona after defeating The Netherlands in the semis. They eventually lost to Germany, who thus qualified for the 2004 Athens Olympics.
"We were unlucky to lose to Germany in Barcelona, but I thought our team played pretty well against the Dutch in the semis. Hopefully, we will give yet another strong performance on Saturday and win the tournament," said Spanish coach Maurits Hendricks.
Tomorrow will also see an exciting contest between India and Pakistan in the bronze medal play-off.
In the league phase, Pakistan outplayed India, with Sohail Abbas scoring four goals from penalty-corners in a 5-3 victory. India will be keen to avenge the loss as well as finish the tournament on a high note.
Last night, Spain played a strong all-round game to overpower Pakistan in the semi-finals.
"It was a tough game considering the circumstances under which it was played. But our players showed great fortitude and courage to even play the game after the morning tragedy," said Hendricks, referring to the series of bomb explosions in Madrid yesterday that killed nearly 200 and injuring around 1,400 people.
Against Pakistan, the home team showed all the signs of a champion unit coming together. The moves were fast and fluent, and they scored some quality goals to overwhelm the fighting Pakistanis, who went without a penalty-corner.
"It was good to have beaten such a strong team like Pakistan after we had lost to them 2-4 in Kuala Lumpur in January (Sultan Azlan Shah Cup) when we did not have a full team. Now, we are coming together as a strong combination and we are hopeful of a positive result against Holland tomorrow," Hendricks said.
Spain finished fifth in the seven-nation tournament in Kuala Lumpur, behind winners Australia, runners-up Pakistan, Germany and Korea.
Meanwhile, the Dutch are seeking to avenge the Barcelona defeat.
"Yes, it will be good to play Spain in the final here. I thought we had a good game against them in the league (2-2 draw) and certainly, we would be looking to make up for our Barcelona defeat," said Terry Walsh, coach of the Dutch team.
The Dutch, who beat India 4-2 in the semis, are enjoying a long spell of success stretching back to 1996. They have survived a player rebellion that led to the sacking of coach Joost Bellart and the induction of Walsh, the former Aussie World Cup and Olympic star.
But Walsh is far from satisfied with his team's performance here in Madrid.
"There have been moments when we played rather loosely and gave away the ball, like we did against India in the semi-finals here. We have to tighten up considerably if we hope to beat Spain in the final," Walsh said.
Thus, the final should witness an intriguing contest between Spanish flair and ingenuity versus Dutch efficiency that borders on robotic style.
Given the solidity of the Spanish defence, the Dutch will need to look at other avenues for scoring, other than penalty-corners for which they have two world-class exponents in Taeke Taekema and Bram Lomans.
Going by the semi-final performances, the Spaniards look better equipped to emerge triumphant. If they can put aside yesterday's tragedy and keep the emotions in check, then there is every possibility of them pulling off a great win on the morrow.