They may have a reputation of being hypnotic dribblers; of being a team that draws patterns around defences without lifting the ball an inch from the ground. But on Sunday night, the pitch black sky became the canvas for India’s dreams as the ball floated more in the air than it rolled along the turf. It wasn’t seductive, but it was street-smart as hell. And when they finally resorted to the strategy, it looked so simple, so obvious that one wondered why they did not do it all along.
Belgium, at half time, would have felt like Deontay Wilder after he knocked down Tyson Fury in their heavyweight title clash the night before. Like the British-Irish boxer, though, India came back from what appeared to be a hopeless scenario to hold the Olympic silver medalists to a 2-2 draw. And after 60 minutes of going toe-to-toe with one another, both teams would have left the Kalinga Stadium with a tinge of disappointment, for it was a contest either side could have won.
Belgium made all the early moves, pushing India so far back that for the first five minutes, the home team could not get out of its own half. They pressed high and quick, pouncing on Indian players as and when they got the ball. And their passes were hit with such force and purpose that they felt more like punches.
When Alexander Hendrickx’s eighth-minute drag-flick thudded into the hardboard, its impact was felt not just by the team but by the packed stadium. It was some sort of divine intervention in this city of temples that India did not concede again. Belgium were doing to India what Indian teams of yore did to them.
The attacking quartet of Thomas Briels, Tom Boon, Cedric Charlier and Florent van Aubel was unlocking India’s man-marking so repeatedly that a second before the half-time hooter sounded, goalkeeper PR Sreejesh removed his helmet and let his frustration out using the choicest of words towards his defenders.
To be fair to the back line though, they were being worked overtime. The midfielders and forwards could barely string together a decent move. Every time India moved forward, choosing to go one-on-one, they were blocked by Belgians without much fuss. It was a half that proved two pre-tournament predictions right: that Belgium were indeed overwhelming favourites and India were just pretenders.
At the half-time break though, Harendra Singh made a small alteration in strategy, which changed the complexion of the match. Observing that the Belgians were coming far too forward and blocking everything that was being played along the ground, the India head coach told his players to go aerial and vertical, instead of flat out towards the wings as the generally prefer.
India barely played any pass along the ground, fearing a Belgian stick kissing the surface would intercept it. Instead, even the short passes were played in the air, and for a change, the players showed the deftness needed to control them.
Almost all such passes were made by defenders Harmanpreet Singh, Varun Kumar and Birendra Lakra, who used short, aerial balls to find the attacking midfielders and link-men. With the ball being played overhead, the Belgian players who had crowded the midfield were suddenly taken out of equation.
On most occasions, the aim was to find the two Indian strikers who were permanently positioned inside the Belgian ‘D’, parallel to the byline. The strategy led to both Indian goals. For the equaliser, Lalit Upadhyay latched on to one such aerial ball and showed the presence of mind to look for a defender’s foot since the angle was too acute to shoot.
Varun Kumar’s drag-flick from the resultant penalty corner hit the foot of Arthur de Sloover, and the umpire had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Harmanpreet confidently slotted it low to the right of Vincent Vanasch to level the score in the 39th minute.
With the momentum swinging their way, India pressed further. The number of aerial passes only increased as the minutes ticked by, and Belgium did not seem to have an answer to it. In the 47th minute, India took the lead after a long ball found Kothajit Singh inside the Belgian ‘D’ on the left, he worked his way through to the byline and played a square pass towards Simranjeet Singh, who tapped it in from three yards out.
Mysteriously, though, India went back to their old ways immediately after taking the lead. The aerial passes dried up and the players sat deep in their own half, giving Belgium the chance to mount pressure in the closing stages of the match. The world number 3 side removed their goalkeeper in the 56th minute as they intensified their search for the equaliser and after just 41 seconds of making that move, Simon Gougnard levelled things, although Sreejesh would have been disappointed to let that in.
With India having a superior goal difference, a factor that could come into play in deciding which team tops the group, Belgium decided to have 11 outfield players even after equalising. But India held on, putting them in pole position to top the group and directly qualify for the quarterfinals.