Hosts India blew away a goal lead and conceded two late goals to go down 1-2 against Belgium to finish sixth in the Hero Hockey World League Final on a chilly evening at the Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium, here today.
It was a hard-fought match between the two sides as both India and Belgium matched each other stick by stick and were in no mood to give an inch to the other in the fifth-sixth place classification game.
Vice-captain P R Sreejesh had a busy outing today under the Indian goal but the lanky custodian pulled off numerous saves throughout the entire 70 minutes to keep India in the hunt till the final hooter.
After a barren but competitive first half, India drew the first blood in the 59th minute through a field goal from Nikkin Thimmaiah to send the significant home crowd present at the stadium into raptures.
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But India did not have the last laugh as the Red Lions made a spirited fightback, pumping in two goals in a span of two minutes at the dying stages of the match to secure the fifth position in the eight-team event.
The sixth place finish here is certain to give a major boost to India’s world rankings. India are presently lying 10th in the world rankings but the performance here is certain to help India jump three places to the seventh position in the International Hockey Federation (FIH) rankings.
However, Belgium, who are currently ranked fifth in the world, are likely to slip to the sixth place when FIH rankings will be released after the conclusion of this tournament.
India were yet again slow to get off the blocks as Belgium dominated the early share of possession.
Belgium made a promising start and raided the Indian goal as early as in the second minute but an agile Sreejesh denied Tom Boon’s reverse shot.
Young Affan Yousuf, who was impressive upfront, managed to get India’s first scoring chance in the 13th minute but he shot over after some fine work from the right flank.
Cedric Charlier wasted another opportunity for Belgium soon when he shot over after catching the Indian defence off-guard.
Affan again missed a golden opportunity to put India ahead in the 24th minute when he failed to get his stick to the ball from S V Sunil’s cross from the right.
If Belgium looked threatening in the first half, the Indians seized the initiative after the change of ends with some impressive forays.
But it was Belgium who had scoring opportunities first in the second half. The Red Lions earned three quick penalty corners in a span of five minutes but wasted all.
Sreejesh stood like a rock in front of the Indian goal to keep away Loick Luyapert from Belgium’s first set piece in the 48th minute.
Belgium, thereafter, wasted two more penalty corners and then India reciprocated when Rupinderpal Singh’s flick from India’s first and only set piece was saved by Belgian goalkeeper Vincent Vanash.
India finally managed to break the deadlock in the 59th minute through Nikkin. Belgium custodian Vanansh made a double save to first deny Affan and then M B Aiyappa, but an opportunistic Nikkin pushed home from close range after the ball fell in front of his sticks.
Stunned by the goal, Belgium went all out and put the Indian defence under relentless pressure with continuous raids.
Their efforts bore fruit when Van Aubel got the faintest touch to deflect home Luypaer’s bisecting cross from the middle to help Belgium draw level.
It was heartbreak for India in the next minute when Boon converted Belgium’s fourth penalty corner to score the winner.
Meanwhile, earlier in the day, Olympic champions Germany eked out a narrow 2-1 win over Argentina to finish seventh.