Olympics Hockey: India stave off late Kiwi fightback in opener
Harmanpreet Singh scored a brace and veteran goalkeeper P R Sreejesh stood like a wall in the closing minutes as India’s men’s hockey team overcame a late threat from New Zealand to snatch a 3-2 win in their Pool A opening match of the Tokyo Olympics, at the Oi hockey stadium in Tokyo, on Saturday.
Harmanpreet scored in the 26th and 33rd minute after Rupinder Pal Singh put the eight-time Olympic champions, currently ranked fourth in the world, ahead in the 10th.
For eighth-ranked New Zealand, Kane Russell scored from a penalty-corner in the sixth minute before Stephen Jenness (43rd minute) reduced the margin later in the match.
India next plays mighty Australia on Sunday. The Kookaburras beat hosts Japan 5-3 in another Pool A tie.
In the day’s other matches, World champions Belgium beat the Netherlands 3-1, thanks to a stunning hat-trick from Alexander Hendrickx, while Germany and Britain also won their first group matches.
Germany thrashed Canada 7-1, with two goals each from explosive forward Jan Ruhr and defender Lukas Windfeder, while Britain, who have won Olympic gold in the men’s tournament three times, defeated South Africa 3-1 and Rio gold medallists Argentina drew 1-1 with Spain.
“Winning three points in a competition like the Olympic Games is really important. I think we had a good second and third quarter but the first and fourth we struggled a little bit,” India’s chief coach Graham Reid said.
“When we watch the video later today, we will be able to find out what we need to get better at and surely there are going to be things we learn from today too,” he added.
The Indians were shocked in the sixth minute when Russell found the top right corner of the Indian goal, beating Sreejesh with a fierce flick.
Even though he did not score, striker Mandeep Singh was a live-wire for India upfront and earned a penalty-corner, which resulted in a penalty stroke, from which Rupinder drew parity in the 10th minute.
New Zealand gave the Indian defence a run for their money, securing four consecutive penalty-corners but wasted all.
From a counter-attack, Gurjant came close to handing India the lead but his effort was saved by New Zealand goalkeeper Leon Hayward.
Four minutes into the second quarter, Hayward again came to the scene when he kept away India skipper Manpreet Singh’s lob from a one-on-one situation.
But six minutes later, Harmanpreet gave India a 2-1 lead going into half-time.
Three minutes after the change of ends, Harmanpreet was again in the thick of things and converted his second-penalty corner of the day with a precision strike.
India secured another penalty-corner minutes later but this time Harmanpreet’s effort was saved by the Kiwi defence.
But the match came to life when Jenness scored with a lovely finish past Sreejesh at the near post in the 43rd minute.
Three minutes from full-time, Lalit Upadhayay’s strike from top of the circle was blocked brilliantly by Hayward to keep New Zealand in the hunt.
It was all New Zealand in the final few minutes of the game as they pressed hard for the equaliser. In the process they earned three penalty-corners in quick succession but Sreejesh came to India’s rescue making some brilliant saves.
With 24 seconds to go, New Zealand secured another penalty-corner, but once again the experienced Sreejesh denied the Kiwis to help India secure full points from the game.
“…we haven’t played for 3-4 months in an international competition, that’s the reality. As far as the weather was concerned, the players handled it really well. We probably could have put away the first few opportunities we created,” Reid said.
“It may have made the game a little less close. I think that is what we need to focus on. We did well in converting the penalty-corners, but we need to look at reducing the numbers (of PCs) we were giving away.”
Asked about their next opponent, Australia, Reid, himself an Australian, said: “I believe they had a shaky start today against Japan, is what I was told by third-party sources. We have already prepared for Australia back in Bangalore but watching the video will always help us see what new tactics they have now.
“It will be a tough game tomorrow and our players are up for the challenge. It’s always good to win the first game at the Olympics and get the three points on board,” he said.