India went down fighting 1-2 to Belgium in a thrilling final of the first-leg of the Four-Nation Invitational tournament at the Blake Park, in Tauranga, New Zealand, on Sunday.
Tom Boon (4th minute) and Sebastien Dockier (36th) were on target for Belgium while Mandeep Singh (19th) was India's lone goal-scorer.
Belgium won a penalty-corner within three minutes of the game but Loick Luypaert's drag-flick was superbly rendered ineffective by India's first runner Chinglensana Kangujam.
Almost immediately India had a great opportunity to score, as a dribbling Dilpreet Singh made a beautiful turn at the top of the circle to dodge a Belgian defender and then slice the ball across to Lalit Upadhyay, who had positioned himself in front of the post, but, sadly, the latter could not get a nudge on the ball.
Belgium, meanwhile, mounted pressure on India with a goal through Boon in the fourth minute.
With three seconds to go for the first hooter, India won a penalty-corner but Rupinder Pal Singh's fierce hit to the right bottom of the post was saved by a Belgian defender.
India overcame a slow start in the second quarter and gained momentum, creating potential circle penetrations. In the 19th minute defender Rupinder Pal Singh intercepted a Belgian long pass to find Manpreet in the midfield, who then sliced the ball to the center of the circle. Mandeep Singh was quick to react and beat goalkeeper Vincent Vanasch with a push for India’s equaliser.
The next few minutes saw India work hard to hold the ball but a structured Belgian defence was tough to break.
Meanwhile, Sreejesh made an excellent save in the 21st minute when Thomas Briels took a shot on goal, ensuring both teams went into the half-time break in a stalemate.
It was advantage Belgium as they scored at the start of the third quarter when Gauthier Boccard used a powerful reverse hit from the top of the striking circle. Sreejesh brought off a fine save but Sebastien Dockier was quick to pick the rebound as he found the gap and smashed the ball past India’s goalkeeper.
Though Belgium won three back-to-back penalty-corners towards the end of the third quarter, Manpreet Singh was unrelenting as the first runner to ensure no goal was scored.
India bounced back in the final quarter, increasing their attacks and finding gaps in the 15-yard mark, to put pressure on the Belgian defence, but experienced goalkeeper Vanasch effected important saves to keep India at bay.
The last five minutes saw India's chief coach Sjoerd Marijne pull out the goalkeeper to add an extra man to the attack.
The effort worked with India winning a penalty-corner in the dying minutes of the match, but Harmanpreet's attempt was well-defended by the Belgians.
"We were much better than our previous match against Belgium. Our young players are making good progress against a world class team like Belgium which we will benefit from in the future. For now, though, even a draw would have been a better result but the Belgium goalkeeper did some good work and made crucial saves," said Marijne.
On January 24, India will take on hosts New Zealand in the first match of the second leg in the Four-Nation Invitational tournament.