On Friday, the Indian women were living a dream with a comfortable four-goal advantage against the USA and one foot through the door to Tokyo. On Saturday, it almost turned into a nightmare before Rani Rampal took a knee, half-turned and slotted the ball into the roof of the net in the 48th minute of the game.
That moment did not help India win the game – the USA did 4-1 -- but ensured the host snatched the Olympic ticket with a 6-5 aggregate, surviving the longest 12 minutes for the team in recent history. It also took the team to its second successive Olympics and third ever even as the USA was left devastated, falling short despite a tremendous fightback when no one gave it a chance.
USA coach Janneke Schopman had said after the 5-1 drubbing in the first game that things were still “doable” for her team, even if no one gave it a chance to overturn the deficit. It did a lot more than that.
Aggressive from the start, USA dished out a ruthless display of perfect planning and made sure the half-chances counted, the Indians left panting in the wake of its speed and precision. Every Indian pass was intercepted, every aerial ball brought down within its own half. The USA cut through the Indian defence with ease, finding space at will to play ball.
There were a grand total of two shots on target in the first half – both penalty corners, both wasted. India struggled to hold the ball, USA winning turnovers with barely an effort. Captain Kathleen Sharkey was all over, scoring once and terrorising the Indian defence, as threadbare as it was, further. India struggled to enter the opposition circle throughout the game.
Erin Matson joined ranks and simply kept running into the Indian circle at will. When they did not have a shot at goal, they earned PCs. And Amanda Magadan kept converting them. At half time, the lead was gone, USA led 4-0 and India looked down and out.
India coach Sjoerd Marijne admitted there was so much going wrong, he did not know where to start with the team in the first half. “But he told us the score was 0-0 and we had a new 30-minute game to play. The result of that would decide our fate and that’s what we did in the next two quarters,” goalkeeper Savita said.
India grew post-break but the USA held firm. Till that one moment when, scrapping for possession and almost a dozen legs from both sides inside the circle, the ball landed with Rani and the Indian skipper stamped her mark on the game, in more ways than one.