India reserved its best for the final, registering a comprehensive 5-1 victory against South Africa in the title clash of the Hockey Series Finals here on Saturday with a performance that was far removed from the fumbling start it made to the competition.
The all-round performance would not just be a relief for the team and coach Graham Reid but also a major step forward in its quest for an Olympic spot. It was a complete performance from the host with dominance in every department over a side that had fought its way through the final. But India was simply too good for South Africa.
Despite the scoreline not being as massive as in previous games, it was a far more polished display from the host who took charge from the opening minute and did not relent at any point. That, for Reid, would perhaps be the biggest takeaway from the outing.
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India pressed hard all 60 minutes but without leaving any lapses in the defence. It kept attacking and opening up space in every area of the field – the flanks and through the middle, in the midfield and SA defence – without much leeway to the opposition in its own defence. All this, without losing its structure or discipline.
The players advanced to receive the ball instead of waiting for it and kept possession without rushing for the goal. Despite an early lead in the 2nd minute when Varun Kumar struck a perfectly placed shot in the bottom left corner through Rassie Pieterse’s legs off India’s first penalty corner, the team did not lose its control.
Manpreet Singh, named played of the tournament, was impressive as always in the middle and on the flanks, and Vivek Prasad was brilliant in holding up the all-important centre-half position every time he got the responsibility. It was a delight to watch the Indians crowd the opposition circle and penetrate at will, but there was no hurry to add to the scoreline. Even defenders Harmanpreet Singh and Birendra Lakra lurked on the edge of SA circle for a scoring chance. And yet, there was hardly any space or opportunity for SA to counter.
With three out of five PCs converted -- an area that has been a concern for the side – it was all about India in front of over 12,000 fans who crowded the Kalinga Stadium. Although India was favourite to win, South Africa was a tricky opponent. It got its first chance in the 53rd minute of the game, two back-to-back PCs, and struck its only goal. There were sporadic attempts in between but Krishan Pathak ensured there would be upsets.
Japan clinches bronze
Earlier, Japan finished third with a 4-2 win against USA in a dramatic playoff that saw three goals being scored in the final 90 seconds of the game. USA began the scoring but got the equaliser in the 59th minute to make it 2-2 and the game heading to a sure shootout. But then USA decided to remove its goalkeeper and Kenta Tanaka scored twice in the final minute.
It was a hard-fought encounter as there was hardly anything to differentiate between the two sides in terms of ball possession. While Japan enjoyed 69.50 per cent of ball possession, the Americans were closely behind at 68.75 per cent.
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However, in terms of experience it turned out to be a great outing for the Americans as they outplayed higher-ranked teams to finish on top of their pool. Japan, meanwhile, approached the tournament as a preparation for next year’s Tokyo Olympics after having qualified for the quadrennial event as continental champion as well as host.
The FIH Series Finals offer two spots in the final round of Olympic qualifiers to be held later this year.
Final: India 5 (Harmanpreet Singh 2, Varun Kumar 2, Vivek Prasad) bt South Africa 1 (Richard Pautz); 3-4 place: Japan 4 (Kenta Tanaka 2, Kazuma Murata, Yoshiki Kirishita) bt USA 2 (Aki Kaeppeler 2).
Player of the tournament: Manpreet Singh (India)
Best junior player: Vivek Prasad (India)
Best Goalkeeper: Jonathan Klages (USA)
Top Scorer: Harmanpreet Singh (India), Varun Kumar (India), Semen Matkovskiy (Russia).
(With inputs from PTI).