Indian eves survive incredible US comeback to qualify for Tokyo 2020
Their tickets are booked: India's women hockey team are going to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
But their contest against the United States turned out to be far from straightforward.
Going into the second leg of their FIH Olympic Qualifier at Bhubaneshwar’s Kalinga stadium, the home side were holding a healthy 5-1 advantage.
The Indian eves though were given a real scare by the visitors as they bagged four goals in the opening half to neutralise the hosts’ first leg advantage.
But captain Rani Rampal scored the all-important fifth goal of the evening to ensure India won the tie 6-5 on aggregate and reach their second consecutive Olympic Games.
The visitors started off brightly, as their high-pressing game caused the Indian defenders all sorts of problems.
Their relentless attack yielded them a few penalty corners in the opening minutes of the game, and Amanda Magadan capitalised with a smart finish from close range in the fifth minute. India’s woes soon worsened in the dying minutes of the first quarter, as their defence failed to clear an attack from the left, allowing Kathleen Sharkey to double the advantage for the United States.
The second quarter continued in a similar fashion, as India struggled to create a lot of opportunities going forward. Their captain Rani, who performed brilliantly in the first leg, barely got a sniff at goal on Saturday. The United States soon found a third goal, as a fortuitous deflection of a shot from the right found its way to an unmarked Alyssa Parker, who flicked it into the roof of the net.
India’s problems were further compounded as veteran halfback Sushila Chanu Pukhrambam picked up a green card. By the end of the first half, the United States soon neutralised India’s first leg advantage after a brilliant piece of individual skill by Magadan outfoxed the Indian defence and goalkeeper Savita Punia in the 28th minute.
Having conceded four in the first half, India’s defence showed some stability as they marked the United States’ players with great diligence and kept them at bay. It was a quarter where both teams were playing cautiously to avoid being hit on the counter. As a result, there weren’t a lot of clear cut chances, with India’s opportunities coming via a couple of penalty corners which drag-flicker Gurjit Kaur blazed narrowly wide.
Leading from the front
India started off brighter in the final quarter, as the United States had a player sent off with a yellow card. Immediately after getting that numerical advantage, India nabbed a goal as captain Rani wriggled away from her marker and unleashed a hard shot that beat a crowd of US defenders to find the roof of the net.
After hitting the front for the first time on the night, India’s experienced players showed some shrewd game management, earning free hits and keeping the United States at bay.
The Indians barely had any defensive worries in the final minutes, as they managed to win the tie 6-5 on aggregate to qualify for their second straight Olympic Games.
However more than a few nerves were left frayed after a courageous comeback from the visitors was finally quelled and India could celebrate sealing an Olympic hockey spot.