It was a day of thrills, surprises and upsets at the first of six FIH Series Finals.
Just when Wales (WR:24) thought they had produced the performance of the day with a 3-1 win over the top ranked team Canada (WR:10), Italy (WR:32), the lowest ranked team in the competition put in a terrific shift to steal three points from China (WR:14).
In the other two matches on the opening day of the FIH Series Finals in Kuala Lumpur, Austria (WR:19) were on fine form with a 5-0 win over Belarus(WR:31) and Malaysia (WR:13) justified their status as one of the pre-tournament favourites with a 6-0 win over Brazil (WR:27)
Austria v Belarus
An hour and a half delay to the start of the match did nothing to dampen the competitive spirit between these two teams as they opened the first FIH Series Finals event with a display of non-compromising and direct hockey.
It was Austria (WR:19) however, whose class showed in the opening quarter, as first Franz Lindengrun cleverly worked the ball past Aliaksei Ramanishkin in the Belarus goal and then Dominic Uher struck home from a penalty corner.
In response Uladzislau Belavusau tried a crafty lob over Mateusz Szymczyk’s head as the Austrian ‘keeper ran out to meet him. The shot just crept over the crossbar.
The second quarter yielded no further goals but Belarus (WR:31) were working their way into the game, with the righthand side of the pitch particularly effective through the skills of Uladzislaus Kochkin and Vitali Zyschhyk.
The fluent passing of Austria was rewarded with three goals in the second half as Player of the Match Robert Bele scored the third after some neat interplay with Fabian Unterkircher. It was Unterkircher who scored the fourth, also from open play and the match was put beyond all doubt when Leon Thornblom took the ball past the Belarus ‘keeper to slot home for his team’s fifth goal.
“Austria were a very strong team and they played very nice hockey,” said Belarus captain Tsimur Tsimashkou, as he reflected on the match. “We will go back and analyse the match on video to be ready for the next game.”
“It was not easy to cope with the long break caused by the weather,” said Austria’s captain Xaver Hasun. “You have to go back in the changing rooms when actually everyone just wants to play – especially as it as the first game. We had a lucky break and didn’t play as well as we wanted but we are focused on the points.
“It wasn’t superb but you don’t have to play a good game in the first match of the tournament. They [Belarus] were physically strong and we knew we had to keep the pace high which is difficult in these temperatures.”
Canada v Wales
The opening 29 minutes of the second match was a case of two teams cagily trying to discover the gaps in each others’ defences. Although Canada are the higher ranked team at tenth in the world, Wales (WR:24) have been making steady progress in recent years under the guidance of Head Coach Zak Williams.
And it was the lower-ranked side who took the lead when James Carson was on hand to slot home the rebound from a penalty corner just ahead of the half-time whistle. It was a deserved lead as the Welsh team had been working hard to move the ball around the pitch, breaking down the disciplined Canada team.
In the second half, Wales doubled their lead within three minutes of the whistle when Luke Hawker was able to take advantage of a mistake by the Canadian defence.
The next few minutes were frenetic as Canada fought to get back into the game and good pressure by the Canadian team saw Iain Smythe halve the lead. This goal could have turned the game but Wales were in determined mood and threw everything into their defence. In turn, they were then putting Canada under pressure with some speedy attacks.
A fabulous save by David Carter in the Canada goal with five minutes to go kept Canada’s hopes of getting something from the encounter and a penalty corner with two minutes left also offered faint hope. That hope was extinguished when Joseph Naughatly slotted home from a penalty corner to give his team the dream start to the tournament.
Player of the Match Gareth Furlong was also celebrating his 100th cap and the moment was all the sweeter for the victory.
David Carter spoke after the game: “We weren’t too bothered by the rain delay, we are used to that. We stayed hydrated and ready for the match.
“I think we were playing soft from the get-go. They were getting fifty/fifty balls and being that bit tougher. We potentially held onto the ball a little too long sometimes. We also pride ourselves on our defensive corners but they capitalised on their chances and scored two of there three goals. That is devastating for us. We are going to reset because we have a massive game tomorrow [against Austria].”
Gareth Furlong said: “This has been a process for us over the past couple of years. We have gone toe to toe with some high ranked teams and not got over the line. But we have been training hard and we can compete with anyone in the world if we play a good game.”
China v Italy
Italy took their higher-ranked opponents by surprise when they took an early 1-0 lead over the Asian team. The goal was scored by Julian Montone from a penalty corner and the goal gave the European team a confidence boost that saw them pressure the China defence as well as negate a determined China attack.
The breakthrough for China came with just one minute of play at the end of the first half. Tu Yuan Lin was the scorer, hitting the Italian goal with a rocket of a penalty corner strike to bring the sides level going into the break.
This looked to be the likely turning point of the game, especially given China’s recent run of good form, but Italy dug deep and their goalkeeper Francesco Padovani put in a performance that earned him Player of the Match as he kept the Chinese attack at bay.
The second Italian goal was celebrated with true Italian passion, with the entire team running to goalscorer and team captain Agustin Nunez after he rounded the goalkeeper Yan Rongyao to put his side ahead.
There followed a nervy ten minutes as China became increasingly frantic as they searched for an equaliser and Italy defended with every man behind the ball.
“We put in such a hard-working performance,” said Guilio Ferrini, as he reflected after the game. “We worked for each other and we just never stopped running. We knew we were the underdogs coming into this game. China were really good in the 2018 World Cup, but we just came together and kept our structure and played our game.”
A despondent Tu Yuan Lin said he was deeply disappointed that China had not been able to put their chances away during the game. Poor finishing was the main thing that let the side down, he added.
Malaysia v Brazil
It was a battling performance by Brazil to keep Malaysia at bay for the first half of the final match on the first day of action. Wave after wave of Malaysia attack was somehow kept out of the Brazil goal as the host nation set up camp in the Samba Boy’s half of the pitch.
The game changed shape completely in the second half as Malaysia came out with a new intent. The most wonderful piece of interplay between the Speedy Tigers attack saw Norsyafiq Sumantri give a dinking pass that evaded the final Brazilian defender’s stick before receiving a pass back that he slapped into the goal past Rodrigo Faustino.
The lead was doubled just seven minutes later when Najmi Jazlan converted a well-taken penalty corner. This was the cushion that Malaysia needed to settle nerves and the host nation looked comfortable for the remainder of the third quarter. Faustino was called into action on several more occasions but was up to the challenge and, as the quarter counted down, Brazil were wounded but still not out of the contest.
That all changed in the fourth quarter as Malaysia took advantage of some holes appearing in the Brazilian defence. Goals came thick and fast as first Fitri Saari, then Azuan Hasan, Kamal Abu Azrai and Razie Rahim all found their way onto the scoresheet.
Head Coach to Brazil, Claudio Rocha said that he was pleased with aspects of his team’s play but in the second half they lost possession too easily, so they were chasing the ball. “When you are chasing the ball, you get tired mentally as well as physically. But we will learn from that for our next match. We always knew this would be a tough game.”
Player of the Match, Fitri Saari said: “The first half, we needed to put more pressure on the opposition. In the second half we put a half court press in place and with the pressure, we scored a goal. Once you score one goal, then it is easier to score two, three or more goals.”