Harmanpreet Singh scored a brace while Rupinder Pal Singh added another for the Men in Blue.
Carrying the hopes of an entire nation to end the 41-year medal draught at the Olympic Games, the Indian Men’s Hockey Team got off to a rollicking start in their group stage campaign with a strong 3-2 win against New Zealand in a match that went down to the wire.
While it was Rupinder Pal Singh who opened the scoreboard for India in the 10th minute, Harmanpreet Singh extended the lead in the 26th and 33rd minute but it was experienced goalkeeper PR Sreejesh who saved the day for India with excellent work in the goal post to stop New Zealand from converting an equaliser in the dying minutes of the match.
Although it was India who made an aggressive start to the match with Mandeep Singh winning an early PC for India in the third minute after a good assist from Nilakanta Sharma, it was New Zealand who managed to draw first blood after Rupinder missed the target by a whisker while converting the PC.
New Zealand’s Kane Russell made no such error as he successfully pumped the ball into India’s post to earn a 1-0 lead in the 6th minute. Only minutes later, an infringement on the line cost New Zealand a penalty stroke. This time, the lanky Rupinder was bang on target fetching India a much-needed equalizer.
The first quarter was fought rather intensely as New Zealand kept India’s PC defence busy. They were awarded as many as four PCs towards the end of the quarter but India’s defence with experienced PR Sreejesh at the post held sway to keep New Zealand from scoring.
Shaking off the early jitters, India looked more dangerous in the second quarter. They created two early chances to score but it was not until the 26th minute that India took a promising 2-1 lead. A good referral by team India saw them win a PC which was brilliantly converted through a sensational set piece. A good injection by Shamsher Singh, stopped well by Nilakanta Sharma was nudged away by Rupinder to Harmanpreet who struck the ball past New Zealand keeper with lightning speed.
India came back stronger in the third quarter creating some early chances. Forwards Mandeep Singh and Dilpreet Singh worked well in the frontline to create scoring opportunities. The attack helped in fetching another PC for India and the New Zealand defence could do little to stop Harmanpreet’s fantastic flick taking India’s lead to 3-1 in the 33rd minute. Though India was awarded another PC in the 36th minute, New Zealand keeper Leon Hayward managed a good save.
However, in the 43rd minute, a lapse in India’s defence enabled New Zealand to bounce back with a well-struck field goal by Stephen Jenness who was set-up with a good assist from Nick Wilson from the right flank.
The final quarter was tense with both teams keeping the tempo up despite soaring temperature in Tokyo which recorded 33 degrees on game day. New Zealand stitched together a compact defence. Their goalie Hayward continued to impress as he stopped striker Lalit Upadhyay from scoring India’s fourth goal. The dying minutes of the match was a battle of nerves particularly for India as they conceded back-to-back PCs. While India skipper was vital as the first rusher in New Zealand’s two attempts, Sreejesh proved just why he is one of the best keepers in the world when he made two match-winning saves that ensured India bagged three points.
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Post-match comments from Chief Coach Graham Reid on Tokyo Olympics Hockey match between India and New Zealand:
“Winning three points in a competition like the Olympic Games is really important. I think we had a good second and third quarter but the first and fourth we struggled a little bit. When we watch the video later today, we will be able to find out what we need to get better at and surely there are going to be things we learn from today too. But at the end of the day, we haven’t played for 3-4 months in an international competition, that’s the reality. As far as the weather was concerned, the players handled it really well. We probably could have put away the first few opportunities we created. It may have made the game a little less close. I think that is what we need to focus on. We did well in converting the PCs, but we need to look at reducing the numbers (of PCs) we were giving away.About playing Australia tomorrow, they are always a tough competitor. I believe they had a shaky start today against Japan, is what I was told by third-party sources. We have half a day today to have a look at both the games. We have already prepared for Australia back in Bangalore but watching the video will always help us see what new tactics they have now. It will be a tough game tomorrow and our players are up for the challenge. It’s always good to win the first game at the Olympics and get the three points on board.”
In their second Pool A match of Tokyo Olympics hockey on Sunday 25 July 2021 at 1500hrs IST, India will take on the formidable Australia who beat hosts Japan 5-3 today.