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Lot to learn from the semi-finals

By Mervyn Fernandis
Last updated on: August 26, 2004 19:29 IST
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The Netherlands and Australia, the two in-form and consistent teams, are rightfully in the final of the Olympic men's hockey tournament. Australia beat Spain by a convincing 6-3 margin while the favourites and defending champions overcame Germany 3-2 in the semi-finals.

When two European teams play each other one expects a lot of body play and exchanges are confined to the midfield. There is close man-to-man marking, and, as a result, you don't get a game as entertaining as an India-Pakistan one.

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But it was not the case when Holland and Germany played in the first semi-final. Both teams played attacking hockey and made pleasing moves in spite of the high temperature and humidity prevailing during the game. In short, it was a thriller that could have gone the way of the Germans had they capitalized on the short corners that came their way.

Though Germany took the lead in the third minute through Matthias Witthaus, it was Holland who held a clear edge because of their better skills and understanding. And after equalising through Teake Teakema and going further ahead through Teun de Nooijer in the 52nd minute it looked as if the Dutch would run away with the game.

But the hallmark of great teams is their ability to fight back in adversity. The Germans pressurized the Dutch defence and the experienced Christoph Bechmann came up with a peach of a goal after positioning himself perfectly.

There were about 12 minutes left for the hooter and the Germans began to look dangerous as they pressed for another goal. They did manage to force a short corner that could have turned things around, but it proved abortive.

Dutch goalkeeper Clemens Arnold had effected fine saves off the four short corners the Germans had forced earlier and I was expecting Florian Kunz, their captain and short corner specialist, to try his hand at the fifth. Instead, they again overlooked Kunz for the flick and failed to score.

It was a rare instance of a European team not converting a single short corner in a game. In fact, the Dutch too could not score from the penalty-corners they forced. Germany's inability to score from the exercise contributed to their defeat.  They will now have to fight for the bonze medal against another European giant in Spain.

Spain, though down 2-4 at one stage in the second half, looked like staging a comeback, but two goals by Grant Schubert in the space of three minutes changed the complexion of the game in favour of the Aussies.

The first of these two goals was a class set-piece short corner execution. Normally, after the ball is stopped on the top of the 'D' the crook of the stick is used. But the stopper sold a dummy and used the handle to move it the other way. It caught the onrushing Spaniards on the wrong foot, and off the resultant set-piece, Schubert, being the last player in the circle, had the easiest of tasks of tapping into an empty goal.

The entire exercise looked so simple because each player involved in the set-piece drill performed his job with the precision of a surgeon. 

The Indians need to sit down and take a look at the videos of both these semi-finals. There is a lot to learn from them, particularly the positional play and penalty-corner variations by the Aussies.

Coming to the minor placings, the vastly-improved New Zealand upset South Korea 4-3 to stake claim for a place in the next Champions Trophy. They will play Pakistan, who beat India, for the fifth and sixth positions.

And what can one say about India? Not much. It is no point harping on the same failings of every match. They did well to hold Pakistan, the pre-match favourites on present form, till the 44th minute or so. But Harpal Singh was busy watching the ball being crossed from outside the circle from a free-hit, instead of keeping an eye on Tariq Aziz, who was right in front of him. The Pakistan forward ran in well to meet the ball and score from a difficult position.

That goal opened the gates and Sohail Abbas scored Pakistan's second goal from a short corner, after India's player-of-the-tournament Adrian D'Souza had frustrated him on four occasions.

Adrian was once again outstanding. This youngster, who replaced India's the number one and experienced goalkeeper Devesh Chauhan just before the Olympics, has indeed been India's saviour at Athens. One shudders to think what would have happened had he too flopped like some of the others in the team.

India play Korea in their next match for the 7th-8th positions. They have a chance of improving upon their record of just one victory in the tournament and finishing in seventh place, like they did at Sydney in 2000. Defeat will see them end up eight, like they did at Atlanta in 1996, their worst finish at the Olympics.

Previous column: Forward line non-existent

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Mervyn Fernandis