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When seen in entirety, India were so good, so irresistible that it’s easy to overlook a few glaring errors sprinkled through the 70 minutes. Break down the performance, and you can focus on the areas that may actually haunt India against an opponent that will be more precise and dangerous than England were on Saturday. India romped to a 5-3 win over the European Championship bronze medallists to enter the quarterfinals of the junior World Cup.
It could easily have been 5-1 in India’s favour or 5-5, depending on how you look at it. Which is why you were left with a slightly bitter taste despite an otherwise dominant performance. But it was discipline, or lack of it, that bothered India more.
Out of the 70 minutes, India played 24 with just 10 men. “It was unwarranted,” coach Harendra Singh said. Manager Roelant Oltmans was more disapproving: “The cards were completely unnecessary. It cost us two goals.” Since bursting on to the scene in 2013, Mandeep Singh has swung between the two extremes, of being fabulous and frustrating. He boasts of a lot of skills. That’s how he has earned India two penalty corners, which were duly converted by Harmanpreet Singh and Varun Kumar.
But at times, he boasts a lot. And the showboating eventually ends up costing the team. On paper, he is from a team which plays a very different brand of hockey than the previous ones. But he gives the impression of belonging to the generation of players that was wasteful and over-dribbled. In doing so, he attracts trouble, which he is unable to dribble past. Easy to get riled, he eventually ends up committing a foul, and gets the consequent card.
On Saturday, he got a needless yellow for making an illegal tackle on an English player in the 61st minute. It was the second time an Indian player was sent off for 10 minutes in the match. In the 47th minute, Nilakanta Sharma received a yellow card for another silly foul in middle of the field, where there was no perceived danger for India.
England failed to capitalise during that phase. But Mandeep’s yellow card resulted in India conceding two late goals, and made the match look closer than it actually was. And it practically cancelled out the two assists he made.
For some reason, Mandeep was named Man of the Match, a decision that Oltmans too did not agree with. “I have nothing against Mandeep,” Oltmans said, despite the fact that he gave the striker a piece of his mind when he was sent off. “But for me, the real man of the match was this man,” the Dutchman added, pointing towards skipper Harjeet Singh. The 21-year-old probably would’ve been an ideal choice. Harjeet once said he enjoys creating goal-scoring chances for his teammates more than scoring them himself. It’s the kind of selflessness that makes him a great leader of an energetic, extremely promising team.
England are a team high on confidence. They earned a podium finish at the European Championships earlier this year, had a string of good performances before landing in Lucknow and, on Friday, received a massive shot in the arm after their funding for the Tokyo Olympics was increased by £2 million to £18 million.
The confidence reflected in the manner in which they began. They created a chance within the first two minutes but an unmarked Edward Horler inexplicably failed to get a shot on target from a couple of feet from the goal. However, England’s persistence paid off in the 10th minute. Liam Sanford’s run sliced open the Indian defence from the middle — cutting through five defenders — laying off for James Gall to tap in an easy goal.
For the first time in the evening, the crowd lost its voice, and on field India looked wobbly. That’s when Harjeet decided to step up his game. It didn’t take long, either, for things to click. He took control of the midfield, ensuring it didn’t lose its shape. He barked out some orders to his teammates. And suddenly, the 3-5-2 formation started working with fluidity that coach Harendra Singh expected it to.
England had packed the centre of the field, so Harjeet would distribute the ball to the wingers, who made incisive runs to create enough panic in England’s defence. Parwinder Singh on the right, Gurjant Singh in a floating role and Armaan Qureshi in the front started to read their captain’s moves and acted accordingly. It was all happening at such blinding pace that England were often caught unaware.
They tried to fight fire with fire — countering India’s ‘ridiculously speedy’ movements, as described by their coach Jon Blebby, with quick counterattacks of their own. But it hurt them more. In a 20-minute span (last 10 minutes of first half and opening 10 of the second), England’s one-goal lead had turned into a three-goal deficit. Harjeet played role in almost every goal.
Blebby would later rue the strategy adopted by his boys. That, combined with two missed penalty corners at crucial moments – last minute of first half and late in the second period – frustrated Blebby further. But the two goals in the final moments lifted his spirits. “It could’ve been 5-5, you know. We weren’t that bad,” he said. Eventually, it was Oltmans and Harendra who walked off slightly frustrated. India had won. But the lessons learnt from this match were far important than the three points.