Four years back Indian hockey touched its lowest ebb when for the first time,the Indian mens team failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics.
On Sunday,they reconfirmed their presence in the top echelons of world hockey,demolishing France 8-1 in the final of this years qualifiers to book their London ticket. In the process,the team has also gone unbeaten in the competition.
Sandeep Singh struck home five times with his drag-flicks to emerge as the highest scorer of the tournament (16 goals),while Birendra Lakra,Shivendra Singh and VR Raghunath scored one apiece in the win. The Indians started well but a couple of errors in finishing in the first 10 minutes prevented the team from getting on the scoresheet. India should have been up 2-0 by then but while the packed French defence did not allow too many chances,the Indians too were let down by some poor shooting. Not that it mattered in the end.
The Indians set out to play an open,attacking brand of hockey in the final,like they have done for most of the tournament. Against France on Sunday,however,they found it difficult to get into a rhythm,running into a solid defence that refused to give any leeway.
The Indians attacked from the left Tushar Khandker worked tirelessly and SK Uthappa took over when he left the field and the right,with Manpreet Singh as right-half coming up with his most improved performance of the tournament,but were unable to get past the French defence.
Despite the fact that the Indians entered the opposition circle at least 5 times in the first 10 minutes,they had to wait till the 17th minute for the opening goal. Sardar Singhs accurate cross from the middle was deflected into the D by Manprit,and Birendra Lakra made no mistake in swinging the ball high into the net. Till then,the Indians had tried desperately to open up the game,dodging past stubborn French marksmen but were unable to shake them off.
Two minutes later,Shivendra Singh was pulled in front of goal as India were awarded their second PC from which arrived Sandeeps first goal of the game he would go on to score four more. It was also the first time video referral was used and everything again seemed to be going Indias way.
India chose to use the referral twice,once to get the PC,once to get one for France cancelled. Martin-Brisac (24th) pulled one back for France,but India went into break with a 3-1 lead.
It was not a cushion that could allow a team to relax in modern hockey,but India came out a different team.
The French got no time to settle into their defensive mode or,indeed,even get into proper marking positions. India earned and converted another PC in the 38th minute,and thereafter slammed the ball in every few minutes to completely blow away the French defence.
Sardar Singh was deservedly named Player of the Tournament,and his display in the final only reinforced the belief that his inclusion in the World XI two years in a row was deserved. Credit should also go to Sreejesh under the bar,who not only brought off a couple of close saves but was solid enough to clear away the couple of penalty corners the French earned.
The French had put up a good display through the tournament,even though they went down 6-2 to India in the league stage. But they had no answer to the Indians on Sunday.
Canada finish third
Canada edged past Poland 4-3 in a pulsating encounter to secure the bronze medal.
The third-fourth place classification match between Canada and Poland turned out to be a lively contest as both the teams came out with attacking hockey in a bid to outsmart each other. But in the end the 14th ranked Canadians managed to hold on to their slim one goal lead to break Polands heart.
The Italian womens team won the bronze medal defeating Ukraine by 2 goals to 1. Doriana Padalion was the star for Italy as her brace helped them get the better of the Ukranians.
The match was a close fought affair and till three minutes before the final hooter both teams were locked 1-1. Padalion decided the game in style when she powerfully struck the ball three minutes from time to hand Italy the bronze.
The dead-ball experts five strikes
Indias penalty corner specialist Sandeep Singh didnt have the best of starts to the final. His first PC strike,in the fifth minute of the match,was blocked by the onrushing Francois Scheefer. After that positive start however,France would have no further luck in stopping him as Sandeep subsequently converted all five PCs that he took.
Goal 1 (19th minute): No chance for the defence as Sandeeps flick goes high into the net to the left of goalkeeper Matthias Dierckens.
Goal 2 (26th minute): Trying a different tactic,Dierckens is the first off the blocks to rush Sandeep but the ball once again finds the net flying waist high to the goalkeeper’s left.
Goal 3 (38th minute): Sandeep does things differently just after the break. This time he slots home,to the right of the French goalkeeper to complete his hattrick.
Goal 4 (49th minute): Luck favours the Indian as Dierckens manages to put stick to the hurtling ball but only manages a deflection that shoots into the top right of the net.
Goal 5 (51st minute): Its five from five as Sandeeps strike homes in uneringly into the top netting to the left of the keeper.