Janneke Schopman is always a very calm character. But Thursday saw a very different version of the chief coach as the Dutch woman was seen barking instructions from the dugout with the Indian women’s hockey team trailing New Zealand 1-3, almost on the verge of exiting the World Cup.
The Savita Punia-led team rallied to score a couple of goals but lost 3-4 in a tense encounter. Significantly, though, India managed to just scrape into the next stage of the competition. By virtue of the win at the Wagener Stadium in Amstelveen, the Black Sticks topped Pool B with seven points and qualified directly for the quarter-finals. England, after their 2-0 win over China earlier, finished second with four points and qualified for the crossovers.
Both India and China ended with two points each, having drawn two and lost one, but the world No 9 outfit finished third to make the crossovers on better goal difference (-1) as China (-2) were knocked out and will play the classification playoffs.
India will now fly 1,500km to Terrassa to face the challenging task of facing hosts Spain at the Estadi Olimpic de Terrassa on Sunday evening. India had faced the world No 7 team twice in the Pro League in February, losing and winning a match each in Bhubaneswar. But this time, Schopman’s girls will be up against a rejuvenated Spanish team that finished second in Pool C. The winner will face world No 3 Australia in the quarter-finals on Wednesday.
In their last Pool B match, India began aggressively when forward Lalremsiami produced a fantastic ball from the edge of the circle. India’s most experienced player with 267 caps, Vandana Katariya (4th) got into a great position to tap the ball into the goal to help India take the lead with their first field goal of the tournament. Vandana has now scored in every match India has played at the quadrennial event.
New Zealand upped the ante to dominate ball possession in the rest of the first half, culminating into multiple attacks on the Indian striking circle. Olivia Merry (12th) hit the ball hard during a penalty corner as the ball found space between goalkeeper Savita Punia’s legs to level the scores.
India made aggressive moves in the second quarter but the New Zealand defence stood tall as a unit and helped the Black Sticks counterattack which gave them a 2-1 lead when Tessa Jopp (29th) found the back of the net.
New Zealand rode on the momentum to earn back-to-back set pieces in the opening minutes of the second half. Frances Davies (32nd) converted the second one, putting India in more than a spot of bother. The same scoreline at the final hooter would have meant a shootoff with China while another New Zealand goal would have ousted India from the tournament.
No option left, India began to press which handed them a penalty corner in the 43rd minute. But Kiwi goalkeeper Brooke Roberts, later named Player of the Match, was stout in the goal, pushing the ball out. However, a moment of brilliance from Sushila Chanu and Lalremsiami (44th) put India back in contention for the crossovers. New Zealand were down a player and India capitalised as Sushila’s superb pass from just outside the 23m line found an unmarked Lalremsiami tapped in the ball to reduce the scoreline to 2-3.
The goal woke up the crowd as India found the wind in their sails in the final quarter to press hard and play mostly in the New Zealand half to penetrate their circle and earn penalty corners regularly. Though the Kiwi defence started crumbling, Roberts stood like a wall. Soon, New Zealand earned a penalty corner as Merry (54th) scored her second to restore the two-goal cushion. India continued to put up a strong fight and were rewarded when Gurjit Kaur (59th) converted a penalty corner. India won multiple set pieces in the final minute but the Black Sticks ensured they walked off as winners and group toppers.
“I am proud of our fight as we worked really hard to stay in the game. Unfortunately, we made some defensive mistakes and New Zealand were very clinical in their finish. There are a lot of things to learn from this game but I have seen glimpses of what we can do. Especially, our performance in the second half showed that we can play some good hockey,” said the India chief coach.
Schopman will have to go back to the drawing board ahead of the all-important crossover to rectify the errors. The first thing that will be bothering her will be the penalty corner conversion rate. India earned an incredible 15 penalty corners—with 12 coming in the final quarter—but converted only one. In their previous group games too, India’s conversion rate has been very poor. They earned seven set pieces against England and five versus China but converted only one in both matches. Straight hits, drag-flicks, variations—nothing worked as their opponents anticipated the moves and reacted quickly to block India’s attempts.
Against New Zealand, India had 11 shots on goal to five by the Black Sticks and 28 circle penetrations, double that of the Kiwis. The numbers effectively show India were far more wasteful in front of goal than the Kiwis.
India’s defence was too static. The quartet of vice-captain Deep Grace Ekka, Gurjit Kaur, Nikki Pradhan and Udita didn’t allow England to earn even a single penalty corner and gave away only two to China but on Thursday they gave away five—more than double of the two previous matches combined—and New Zealand punished them by scoring from three of them.