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Hockey Olympic qualifiers: A weekend of happy hosts, crazy comebacks and messy reviews

A vintage Pakistan performance followed up by, well, a typical Pakistan performance. A controversial decision by the video umpire that doused Ireland’s Olympic hopes – and forced their captain to remark that the “video umpire should hang his head in shame”. A French scare for Spain, and China’s improbable comeback against Belgium.

By: Express News Service | Updated: October 29, 2019 10:34:21 am
Canada clinched an Olympic spot in men’s field hockey with a sudden-death shootout victory over Ireland on Sunday. (Source: Yan Huckendubler)

The first weekend of the hockey Olympic qualifiers – a two-match series played at the home of the higher-ranked team – threw up a few dramatic storylines and some improbable comebacks. Ahead of the Indian men and women teams matches against Russia and USA respectively this weekend in Bhubaneswar, here’s how some of the matches panned out last week, with all home teams emerging winners.

Pakistan flatter to deceive
Game 1: Ned 4 Pak 4
Game 2: Ned 6 Pak 1
(The Netherlands won 10-5 on aggregate)

– Summing up his side’s mentality, former Pakistan coach Shahnaz Sheikh had once said: “We either destroy others, or we destroy ourselves.”

– Inside 24 hours in Amsterdam, they did both.

– Pakistan entered the qualifiers after paying a fine of 170,000 euros to the International Hockey Federation, in installments, for withdrawing from the Pro League, sort of qualifier for the qualifiers, at the last minute.

– The three-time Olympic champions, currently ranked world number 17, were pitted against two-time gold medalists and world number 3, the Netherlands. The Netherlands had played 27 matches against top-quality opponents this year whereas the cash-crunch meant Pakistan could manage just four games the whole year. They had a whole new coaching staff after the debacle at the World Cup last year and the playing group was shuffled as well. The Dutch were the clear favourites.

But Pakistan surprised all, even themselves. The first game – a match for the ages – saw Pakistan take the lead thrice, but on all three occasions the Dutch managed to find a way back. Pakistan’s all four goals came from penalty corners, their forwards wrecking havoc in the Dutch ‘D’, finding gaps and methodically demolishing the famed Dutch structural play.

– Pakistan’s relentless attacks and unerring penalty corner conversion seemed to have shocked the Netherlands, who – somehow – stayed alive in the tie. Pakistan led 4-3 with one second remaining. However, Mink van der Weerden converted a controversial penalty corner – his second goal of the match – to deny Pakistan a famous win.

– Just how much Pakistan had hurt the Netherlands could be gauged from the fact that skipper Billy Bakker said, “I don’t want to sound arrogant, but with the quality of team like that, we should do better.” And better they did.

– The two teams returned on the pitch less than 24 hours later. But this time, the wounded Dutch had much more finesse than fragility. They didn’t give Pakistan a sniff, romping through 6-1 and sealing a spot at the Tokyo Games. For Pakistan, this was a second successive failure to qualify for the Olympics.

(Hard) luck of the Irish
Game 1: Canada 3 Ireland 5
Game 2: Canada 3 Ireland 1
(6-6 on aggregate, Canada won 5-4 via tie-breaker)

– Video reviews aren’t causing controversies in football alone. On Sunday, Ireland, one of the most improved teams in recent times, believed they had sealed the Olympics spot. Amidst the jubilation, they missed the bit where a collision inside their ‘D’ had been referred to the video umpire. Seconds later, a penalty corner was awarded to Canada after Ireland’s Lee Cole was adjudged to have infringed upon a Canadian forward. The Irish argued, with some merit, that the video was unclear at the time of contact. But the decision was made. Canada scored, forced a tie-break and won that as well to seal an unlikely win.

Ireland, who won the first game 5-3, had a two goal advantage going into the decider. They extended it with a goal from John Mckee in the sixth minute. But Canada scored twice, in 21 and 37 minutes, to get within a goal of forcing a shootout. The late penalty ensured it went their way.

– Ireland captain Jonny Bell did not hold back after the match. “The video umpire should hang his head in shame. It was a terrible, terrible decision…”

Spain survive French scare
Game 1: Spain 3 France 3
Game 2: Spain 3 France 2
(Spain win 6-5 on aggregate)

– France, the story of last year’s World Cup, almost pulled off the improbable once again by racing to a 3-0 lead in the first leg against Spain, ranked four places above them at 8th, with goals from Victor Charlet, Gaspard Baumgarten and Amaury Bellenger. But Spain came back, with penalty corners from veteran striker Pau Quemada.

– In the winner-takes-all second game, there was nothing to separate the two sides once again. Both sides squandered leads until Xavi Lleonart’s penalty stroke in the 40th minute sealed France’s fate. Spain, who have played in every Olympics since 1956, are on their way to Tokyo as well. France, meanwhile, have been waiting for their first Olympics appearance since 1972. And looks like it’ll end in 2024, when the Games will be held in Paris.

Chinese women leave it late
Game 1: China 0 Belgium 2
Game 2: China 2 Belgium 0
(2-2 on aggregate, China win 2-1 via tie-breaker)

– The largely eventless tie between two evenly-matched sides came to life in the final five minutes. Belgium had established a comfortable 2-0 lead after the first game, and had done well to protect it in the deciding fixture for 55 minutes. China’s coach Huang Yongsheng replaced goalkeeper Li Dongxiao with an outfield player in the 54th minute.

– Belgium buckled under relentless Chinese pressure. The hosts scored two goals in as many minutes, 56th and 57th, to force a tie-break. The goalkeeper was back under the bar for China and she pulled off a string of miraculous saves to deny four out of the five Belgian penalty takers. China eventually won the shootout 2-1.

Teams qualified

Men
Japan (Hosts, 2018 Asian Games champions)
Argentina (2019 Pan-American Games champions)
South Africa (2019 African Olympic Qualifiers)
Belgium (2019 European Championship winners)
Australia (2019 Oceania Cup winners)
Spain (Defeated France in qualifiers)
The Netherlands (Defeated Pakistan in qualifiers)
Canada (Defeated Ireland in qualifiers)

Women
Japan (Hosts, 2018 Asian Games champions)
Argentina (2019 Pan-American Games champions)
South Africa (2019 African Olympic Qualifier winner)
Netherlands (2019 European Championship winners)
New Zealand (2019 Oceania Cup winners)
Spain (Defeated Korea in qualifiers)
China (Defeated Belgium in qualifiers)
Australia (Defeated Russia in qualifiers)

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