The Indian hockey men’s team fought hard but suffered their first defeat in their maiden FIH Pro League campaign, going down 2-3 to world champions Belgium at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar on Sunday.
The match witnessed an early goal and this time, it was the Belgians who made up for their ways on Saturday by scoring from their first penalty corner of the day.
Specialist drag-flicker Alexander Hendrickx scored his fourth goal of the FIH Pro League by executing a near-perfect penalty corner, keeping his powerful sweep well away from the clutches of the Indian custodian PR Sreejesh, who had had a stellar game on Saturday.
Belgium returned to their strategy of patient build-up and routinely strode forward but the Indian defenders were alert to it on most occasions. They also smartly cut-off India’s creative outlet in skipper Manpreet Singh, with two defenders immediately onto him whenever he had the ball.
However, Manpreet Singh created the Indian hockey team’s first real chance when he managed to sell a dummy and swept a diagonal ball into the circle but Belgium somehow managed to clear it before it reached youngster Vivek Prasad.
The 19-year-old was not to be denied his goal though as he equalized just before the first quarter ended. Surender Kumar drove forward with purpose down the left-wing and shielded the ball before crossing it in and Vivek Prasad had the easiest task of deflecting it in, which he duly did so by nutmegging Belgian keeper, Vincent Vanasch.
Belgium Ahead at half-time
The second quarter started in frenetic fashion with Belgium going into the lead barely a couple of minutes in. Simon Gougnard found himself in space on the right-wing and crossed in and Maxime Plennevaux improvised to deflect it after it passed him, surprising the Indian defence.
The Indian hockey team hit back precisely 30 seconds later though. Surender Kumar, who enjoyed a great half, got himself out of a jam, wriggling past two Belgian attackers before laying it off to the silky Lalit Upadhyay, who earned a penalty corner.
In the absence of drag-flicker Rupinder Pal Singh, Indian vice-captain Harmanpreet Singh took up the mantle but his first shot did not quite work out as the first defenders blocked it. Vivek Prasad’s shot off the rebound was saved by Vincent Vanasch but the ball made its way to Amit Rohidas, who slammed it in to get India level.
However, Belgium went into half-time with a 3-2 lead as Maxime Plennevaux got his second goal of the game, with the easiest of deflections after a howler by Harmanpreet Singh, with the defender giving the ball away with no teammate in sight.
India could have equalized once more but Mandeep Singh was denied by some last-ditch defending by Alexander Hendrickx.
PR Sreejesh keeps India in the game
The Indian hockey team almost started another quarter with a goal but Gurjant Singh could not react in time to deflect a high ball in by Jarmanpreet Singh. Ramandeep Singh was the next player to miss a chance when he sent his shot wide of the Belgian goal.
The Indian hockey team seemed to have heeded the advice of coach Graham Reid to keep possession in the initial stages but did not quite make it count, hardly creating any chances. The Red Lions seized back the momentum soon enough but even they could not create too many meaningful opportunities.
They should have doubled their lead towards the end of the third quarter but PR Sreejesh continued his fine form, making three saves with his foot and was incandescent with his defenders for allowing their opponents to come so far in after the last one.
India, for their part, fluffed a penalty corner in the last minute of the quarter before Sreejesh kept them in the game with another fine save from a rapid Belgian counter-attack.
The final quarter was another scrappy affair as both Belgium and India went close a couple of times but their respective goalkeepers were on hand to not let any more goals through.
Belgium atop FIH Pro League Points table
With this win, Belgium ensure they stay on top of the FIH Pro League points table with 14 points from six games while India are placed second with eight points in four games.
What next for India at the FIH Pro League
The Indian men’s hockey team will next welcome Australia to the Kalinga Stadium for a double-header on February 21-22 before travelling to London to face Great Britain a month later.