The exit was as abject as the journey till that point, which was rather mesmerising. India were just a win away from ending their 36-year wait of reaching an Olympic semifinal. However, they could not reproduce their group stage form and were ousted from Rio with a 3-1 defeat to gold medal favourites Belgium in the quarterfinals on Sunday.
Having played aggressive, counter-attacking hockey throughout their campaign, India were eventually undone by adopting an ultra-defensive approach against a Belgian side that has looked most dangerous in the Games.
Akashdeep Singh gave India the lead in the 15th minute) before Belgium pumped in three field goals from Sebastien Dockier (34th, 45th) and Tom Boon (50th) to dash India’s hopes.
India have had problems beating tougher opponents in major tournaments. At the Olympics, it was no different. They gave Germany and Holland a run for their money but a win eluded them. On Sunday, it seemed they were overawed by Belgium, giving them too much respect.
Roelant Oltmans’ side’s gameplan was to ensure Belgium do not score an early goal, and then hit them on counter. But to their credit, Belgians did enough from the beginning to scare India. They had their first attempt at goal in just 15 seconds. Always relying on direct attacks, they had two men hovering over India’s ‘D’ for the entire duration of the match – even when they were 3-1 up. That high-press; that constant movement near India’s goal meant the Asian Games gold medallists rarely managed to get out of their own half.
India took the lead against the run of play, largely due to midfielder Manpreet Singh’s vision to find Akashdeep with a brilliant through ball. Akashdeep did well to deflect the ball past Belgium goalkeeper. Barring that opportunity, Belgium barely gave India an opening. So strong was their defence that India could not earn even a single penalty corner, which has been their main source of goals at the Games.
With India choosing to sit deep in their half, Belgium launched one attack after the other and if not for PR Sreejesh, India would have lost by a bigger margin. Oltmans chose to take India’s best player off the field in the final 10 minutes of the game by putting an extra outfield players as India tried to claw their way back in the game. It was too late.