At the end of the first of three men’s FIH Series Finals, Canada (World Ranking:10) finished their campaign in style with a 3-2 win over host nation Malaysia (WR:13).
Earlier in the day, the lowest-ranked team, Italy (WR:32), continued to astonish and delight in equal measure as they beat Austria (WR:19) to finish third.
The results mean that Canada and Malaysia are the first teams to win a place at the Olympic Qualifiers, which will take place later in the year.
Austria v Italy
A closely contested first quarter saw two European teams go toe-to-toe in the battle for third place.
Both Austria and Italy have enjoyed good performances at this event, finishing top of their respective pools. Italy had found the net more times ahead of this game – ten goals to Austria’s seven – but Austria had conceded fewer goals – three to Italy’s four.
It was Austria who nearly took the lead early on. A fierce shot was brilliantly saved by Francesco Padovani – a continuation of the goalkeeper’s good form throughout this tournament.
Just before the half-time break it was Italy’s turn to nearly break the deadlock. This time it was Austria shot-stopper Benjamin Melinc who saved his team after Mattia Amorosini almost added to his tournament goal tally.
The second half looked to be going the same way as both teams struggled to put meaningful attacks together.
Both sides have performed above their rankings in this event and the toll on their bodies was beginning to show.
However, it was the lowest ranked team in the tournament who once again showed their mettle. Italy dug deep and somehow found renewed energy.
Urged on by their energetic captain Agustin Nunez and the hard-working Julian Montone, Italy mounted an attack and Player of the Match Francois Sior was on hand to smash the ball home, much to the delight of his team mates.
The goal spurred on Austria, who answered with a well-taken goal from Patrick Schmidt, his shot evaded the outstretched leg of Padovani.
The game looked to be heading to shoot-out but Thomas Keenan had other ideas. Italy won a penalty corner and Keenan dispatched it into the top of the net to seal third place for Italy.
The result meant that Italy have beaten four teams with higher rankings, losing only to Canada, the highest-ranked team in the competition.
Malaysia v Canada
Canada and Malaysia stepped into a cauldron as they prepared to battle for first place at the FIH Series Finals event in Kuala Lumpur.
A vibrant, exuberant crowd greeted the players and, with the majority of support, including the King of Malaysia, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, cheering them on, Malaysia set about finishing the task.
With both teams having qualified for the Olympic Qualifiers the previous day, they could have been excused taking a less than committed approach but nothing could be further from the reality.
Malaysia were determined to satisfy the appetite for success of the crowds and Canada wanted to finish the tournament on a winning note.
It was Malaysia who took the lead through Firhan Ashari. The forward danced through the defence and slipped it past Canada’s goalkeeper Antoni Kindler. The goal was greeted with a deafening roar by the onlookers.
But Canada are not ranked tenth in the world for no reason and the North American side came back strongly and swiftly. Captain Scott Tupper put everything behind a penalty corner strike and brought the scores level.
Canada moved into the lead minutes later as Tupper fired a penalty corner goalwards and Brenden Bissett was on hand to deflect the ball into the goal.
Malaysia nearly drew equal when Ashari again weaved his way into the circle but Tupper was back on defensive duties now and steered the player and ball away from the danger area.
Towards the end of the half, a brilliant run by Norsyafiq Sumantri resulted in a penalty stroke but Fitri Saari put the shot over the bar.
Canada strengthened their hold on the match when James Kirkpatrick deflected the ball after Adam Froese had struck it speculatively into the circle.
Malaysia had a chance to get back when they were awarded a second penalty stroke but this time Player of the Match Antoni Kindler was able to get his tall frame down to keep the ball from going in.
Still Malaysia didn’t give up. With just seven minutes left to play, the magical skills of the eventual Best Player of the Tournament, Tengku Tajuddin, saw him bring his team back into within touching distance of Canada.
The last few minutes were frenetic but Canada dug deep and when the final whistle blew there was as much relief as celebration in the faces of the players.