RIO DE JANERIO: In a blazing heat that could melt laptops, leave alone the resolve of the teams in the middle, India began with promise but slid into painfully slow meltdown as they hunted for their first Olympic hockey semifinal since 1980.
In the Deodoro sun, the shirts - mostly, male - were off, India could have covered itself in glory. The new garish blue of the hockey turf sprung up and stung your senses, hardly the conditions which would allow you to think straight. Yet, the Indian stuck on for the opening strike, but thereafter it was the same old story.
With less than half a minute in the first period, sensing an opening, Danish Mujtaba struck one through the middle into striking circle. It deflected off Akashdeep Singh past a surprised Vincent Vanasch in the Belgian goal. The Indians were opening up, the tropical conditions seeming to suit them more than their European rivals. Belgium were finding themselves in the backfoot.
It could have been all so different, for less than a minute before Akashdeep's opening goal. Sebastien Dockier was fed from the left, with a clear chance at goal but captain Sreejesh, at his near post, was equal to it.
As the noon sun rose, the Belgians seemed to lose a bit of their shape, but came out stronger in the second half. Thomas Briels had an open goal in front Indian captain at his mercy. But Sreejesh had other ideas. Then Dockier worked his way into the striking circle past a host of Indian defenders and struck a delightful shot past Sreejesh for the equaliser. Belgium were growing in strength. Dockier was beginning to find space. In one instance, he swiveled between and past Walmiki and K Chinglensana as if they weren't there. It took another brave, if clumsy, effort by Sreejesh to thwart the Belgian striker.
India seemed to have little ideas as the game progressed, the initial burst after the opening goal only evidence of their purpose, else they were chasing shadows. On the Indian touchline, Roelant Oltmans was wind milling furiously as his plans were being stretched or going awry. Flinging an empty bottle into his bench, he summed up the slow Indian meltdown.
Was there hope out of this?
Just as you wondered, Belgium earned their second penalty corner. Tom Boon struck it sweetly, Sreejsesh made a great diving save on his right.
But the relief was short-lived. Dragging play to the left, Felix Denayer's shot was deflected, once again, by that man, Dockier. 2-1 up India seemed to have little in their tanks and gameplan to get back.
Was there a miracle in store?
It was turning out to be a familiar story. Belgium was dictating flow and play. They would soon earn a third penalty corner, again Sreejsh would save.
On the break, Akashdeep strove ahead - a plod more than flight - but easily dispossessed even before he got to the striking circle.
Soon it was 3-1, it didn't matter who. But wait, it was Tom Boon adding himself to the list. Oltmans leaned back further on the railing outside his bench. Then he threw in his masterstroke. In the many needless innovations made to hockey, he revoked his best player - Sreejesh - for a 'keeping back' and Walmiki made to wear a sorry yellow over India's white
Maybe this - an extra onfield player -- was really an Oltmans masterstroke, since almost immediately - out of nowhere, actually - Sardar Singh and Akashdeep found the Belgian goalmouth. But goalkeeper Vnasch was at work too, so what if it was Sunday. Simply, you wouldn't need all these, if the basics are right. But Indian hockey has long forgotten that. Next Olympics, then...
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