The faces said it all. The younger ones, playing their first Asian Games and winning a silver, were all smiles at their first ever continental medal. The senior pros, including captain Rani Rampal playing her third Asiad, tried hard to control their tears. The 2-1 loss to Japan in the final was a cruel end to their dreams of booking an Olympic ticket here on Friday.
The Indian women’s hockey team gave it all but still came up short, finishing second best. It was an improvement on the third-place finish in the previous edition, but against an opponent which did not concede an inch and nipped every move by the Indians before it could develop into anything substantial.
Coach Sjoerd Marijne had said after the semifinal that it was all about the moment. The girls could not make it their own. He declared he was proud of his girls after the final but admitted they could not take the half-chances they got and made small errors that cost them big.
India thrives on open play, pace and quick counters. Japan, tactically the superior team on the day, did not allow any of it. It held the structure all through, marked every zone by the book and its control on the ball was brilliant. Every mis-trap and mis-pass by India was punished.
And Japan's defence was impeccable, India managing only two penalty corners through the game and unable to convert either. It was all held together by Mayumi Ono, the central midfielder and the most experienced player from either side, who controlled the team like clockwork.
The Indians did have their chances, though. Deep Grace Ekka was relentless in her aerial passes and manned the defence almost single-handedly, denying the Japanese. Goalkeeper Savita Punia was alert to thwart a couple of close chances.
Vandana Katariya, Navneet Kaur, Navjot Kaur, Lalremsiami, Udita and Neha Goyal kept sneaking into Japan’s circle and Rani kept feeding them. But the lack of experience upfront hurt the team.
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None of the forwards, barring Vandana, have more than 45 caps. It showed every time they entered the circle – the momentary hesitation to take a shot at goal giving enough time too Japan to clear.
“We created enough chances, not enough PCs and then got the big one in the last five seconds. You have to take your chances in the final; it is difficult if you don’t. But they have had a long summer and to still have this energy at this time, I am proud of my girls and they should be proud of themselves,” Marijne said.
While Japan would have qualified for the Olympics anyway by virtue of being the host, the gold here – Japan’s maiden one in the Asian Games – would give it the claim a place on merit. For India, the road to Tokyo just got tougher but Marijne is not thinking too far ahead.
“Their bodies are done, a lot of girls were taped up and some were on the line, not sure whether they could even play of not. And yet none of them thought about it, which is a good, fighting mindset. They need a break for at least a month and then we will see,” he said.
In the playoff for the bronze medal, China pipped Korea 2-1 to push the defending champion out of the podium.