If Sjoerd Marijne had been told before Friday’s game that his girls would have a four-goal margin at the end of the first leg of hockey Olympic Qualifiers, it would be no surprise that it would have made him happy.
As it were, India’s 5-1 victory against USA put the host in the driver’s seat in its quest for an Olympic ticket.
The Indian team playing here has been a different side in the last 18 months. Its fitness and maturity has undergone a change and the increased confidence shows. It has also led to the team playing smart and being aware of game situations.
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USA, which won 3-0 at the Rio Olympics three years ago, would be the first to admit that.
A mis-trapped penalty corner in the 28th minute saw Indian forwards exchanging possession before Neha Goyal, placed on the back line, managed to push the ball through a flurry of USA legs to an unmarked Lilima Minz at the far corner and the latter coolly tapped it in. It was a defensive lapse and it was enough to energise the Indians, both on and off the field.
Historical data and recent form was loaded against the host and the first 15 minutes was all nerves, with USA dominating in all areas.
Captain Kathleen Sharkey was all over the field - troubling the Indian defence, manning the midfield, directing her players around and passing impeccably.
Lilima’s goal, coming much against the run of play, changed all that. A second by an unmarked Sharmila Devi in the 40th minute was similar.
India turned it up a little post-break, with the game becoming a story of two captains. While Sharkey gradually became quieter and USA strangely went on the backfoot, Rani Rampal stepped up as a leader.
Three of the seven penalty PCs India earned had her imprint. Two of the goals scored came off moves triggered by her. And as she grew, the rest settled into their roles and came together.
The culmination was the fourth goal, in the 46th minute – three passes all the way from the Indian defence to Navneet at the top of the circle, who took her time to control and shoot past Kelsey Bing. Smooth, close to perfection.
Post match, Marijne was satisfied but not too excited and said the girls felt similarly. He would sleep well but knows well that it was only half the work done.
“You know how the process can go. You don't get ticket to Tokyo today, you have nothing so far,” he said when asked if the team had one foot in the Olympics.
A repeat of Friday for another 60 minutes on Saturday would ensure the ticket.
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