Sandeep powers India to London Olympics men's hockey
Ace drag-flicker Sandeep Singh slammed five goals, including a hat-trick, as India qualified for the London Olympics men's hockey, after missing out on the 2008 edition, by spanking France 8-1 in the final of the qualification tournament in New Delhi on Sunday.
Coming into the game with memories of the Santiago debacle four years ago still fresh in their minds, the Indians ensured that there was no repeat of the blunder this time around and toyed with the French defence throughout the 70 minutes to score the goals at will.
Sandeep, who witnessed the Chile debacle from close quarters, continued his goal-scoring spree to not only help eight-time Olympic champions India keep its date with London, but also emerged as the highest scorer of the tournament with 16 goals.
Impossible for France to counter India's consistent attacks
The 18th-ranked Frenchmen proved a mismatch for the erstwhile giants of the game as India scored three and five goals respectively in both the halves to dash the European team's London dreams.
The Indians were right on the money with their game plan as France found it impossible to counter the home team's consistent attacks.
The difference between the two teams can be gauged from the fact that both India and France earned as many as seven penalty-corners each, but the visitors failed to score from a single one while the hosts converted six.
The rout started with Birendra Lakra's field goal in the 17th minute, after which it was a one-man show, as Sandeep (19th, 26th, 38th, 49th and 51st minutes) converted five successive penalty-corners for India to floor France.
S V Sunil (43rd) and V R Raghunath (56th) were the other goal-getters for the hosts, while Simon Martin-Brisac (24th) scored the consolation goal for France.
Image: SV Sunil battles of possession
India were by far the better side
With eyes firmly set on London, the Indians started the proceedings in the right earnest and controlled the game from the onset.
As their world rankings suggest, India were by far the better side on display for most part of the match and mounted continuous raids on the rival citadel from the very beginning.
India got their first scoring chance as early as in the third minute when they were awarded a penalty-corner but Sandeep failed to convert it.
Manpreet Singh then came tantalisingly close to giving India the lead in the 16th minute but his reverse shot from top of a very crowded circle was blocked by an agile French goalkeeper Mathias Dierckens.
India then scored two goals within the span of two minutes to take control of the match.
India broke the deadlock in the 17th minute when Lakra scored with a reverse hit after being fed by Manpreet's cross from the right.
Sandeep then made the scoreline 2-0 from India's second penalty-corner following a video referral after Shivendra was brought down inside the French circle.
Image: Sandeep Singh (centre) celebrates
Hat-trick for Sandeep Singh
Down 0-2, the Frenchmen came up with a stunning field goal just five minutes later when Martin-Brisac beautifully deflected home Sebastien Jean-Jean's quick cross from the right flank.
But France's joy was shortlived as Sandeep scored his second goal of the match two minutes later from India's third short corner.
If the first half saw a somewhat keen contest between the two teams, penalty-corner conversion was the order of the day after resumption of play as Sandeep ripped apart the French defence with his precision drag-flicking.
Sandeep showed why he is considered as one of the best penalty-corner specialists in the world, converting three consecutive set pieces in 14 minutes to pocket the match and book India's place in the London Olympics.
A completely a one-sided affair in the end
In between, an unmarked Sunil scored a field goal after he was set up by Tushar Khandker and Danish Mujtaba.
Raghunath drove the final nail in France's coffin, converting India's seventh short corner with a powerful flick to the top of the French goal.
It was completely a one-sided affair and India could have won the match by a bigger margin had they not wasted numerous scoring opportunities that came their way.
The win not only ensured India's place in the London Games, but also made all the players richer by Rs 200,000 each, while members of the support staff will pocket Rs 100,000 each as promised by Hockey India and Lalit Group of Hotels.
Image: Fans wave India's national flag during the final