Custodian Savita emerged a saviour by blocking half-a-dozen goal-bearing chances as India enhanced their Olympic qualification, following a 1-0 victory over Japan in the fifth-place playoff in the women Hockey World League Semifinals, in Antwerp on Saturday.
The match-winner for India came in the 13th minute from Rani Rampal, who capitalised on a rebound from the Japanese goalkeeper after the initial shot from Vandana Katariya in open play was blocked.
But the star of the day for India was Savita, who firmly stood between repeated Japanese raids and the Indian goal, often diving to either side to block firm shots.
In the last quarter itself, Japan forced five penalty corners and laid a seize on the Indian circle, but could not get a shot past Savita.
The Indians fell back to defend the lead and Savita paved the way for the Indian women to play in their first Olympic Games in 36 years. Indian women’s lone Olympic appearance was at Moscow in 1980. Effectively, India’s fifth spot here should secure them an Olympic Games ticket when the countdown to allocate spots takes place.
Three spots each are on offer at both the World League Semifinal competitions, here at Antwerp and in the just-concluded event at Valencia.
With five continental event champions being allowed another route, there are likely to be several dual qualifications. In turn, that can open up Olympic spots for nations which do not make the top four of the two World League Semifinals.
Germany, Great Britain and China have secured the three Olympic berths from the World League Semifinals in Valencia.
Three teams here at Antwerp will secure their Rio de Janeiro tickets, but South Korea have already earned an Olympic slot by winning the Asian Games gold medal.
An African champion could be the only one not to have featured among the top four teams at these two World League Semifinals, opening up more places, even if Olympic hosts Brazil are given a leeway to make the grade.
Both in the men and women’s events, Brazil have been allowed a leeway of making the Olympics if they can achieve the fifth place in the Pan American Games. In the women’s event, Brazil are only a reserve team in case there are any withdrawals from the Pan American Games that start in Canada in two weeks.
Going into today’s fifth place playoff, India drew confidence from their victory over Japan in the bronze medal game of the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon last October.
India opened the scoring in the 13th minute when Lilima Minz started a move inside the Indian territory and passed to Vandana, whose fine solo run on the left flank took her into the scoring zone.
Vandana’s reverse shot from top of the circle was blocked by goalkeeper Sakiyo Asano, but Rani Rampal sent a stinging shot high into the net.
Japan’s set-piece attempt on a penalty corner in the 20th minute saw Hazuki Nagai’s deflection go just wide of the right post.
India got a fine chance on a breakaway in the 25th minute when they had three strikers in the rival zone against only two defenders. Vandana Katariya had the ball in the centre, but instead of going forward with the ball, she squared it to the right and the misdirected pass went over the sideline.
India conceded an unnecessary penalty corner in the last minute of the first half when Rani Rampal contested a ball while standing close to ball after a foul, but the penalty corner was wasted as the shot soared high over the cross-bar.
Looking for an equaliser, Japan pressed hard in the second half. At one time, the ball stayed deep in the Indian territory for five minutes. India’s goal survived as defender Monika brought off a fine save in the 38th minute shot that had eluded the custodian’s reach.
A minute later goalkeeper Savita took a flick from close range on her body before the ball was cleared. Indian player Monika pulled a muscle at the start of the last quarter and had to leave the pitch before Japan had a period of complete domination, but failed to breach the defence.