The beauty of sport lies in its drama, excellence and sheer unpredictability. Throw in a heroic underdog and you have the recipe for a fantastic sporting spectacle. And so it was on day four of the FIH Series Finals as Italy (World ranking: 32), the lowest-ranked team in the competition, finished their pool matches undefeated and top of Pool B.
Today’s earlier matches were played in temperatures hitting 40 degrees centigrade, meaning extended breaks at each quarter but the action on the pitch was just as warm.
In Pool A, Austria (World Ranking: 19) jumped from third to first, leapfrogging Canada and Wales. The Austria team played the patience game to beat Wales (WR:24) 2-0.
Earlier in the day Canada (WR:10) had beaten Belarus (WR:31) 6-2 but their inferior goal difference meant they could only watch as Austria strode past them to the top of the pool and book a passage straight through to the semi-finals.
The other Pool B match saw yet another close-fought match as Brazil (WR:27) took an unexpected lead against China (WR:14). The match looked to be heading for a draw but with just minutes left, China found a way past the exhausted Brazil defence and scored the winning goal, to clinch third in the pool.
The results mean that in the cross-over matches on Wednesday 1 May, Canada will play China and Wales will face Malaysia. The following day Belarus will play Brazil for seventh position.
At the end of the pool matches, Italy’s forwards Julian Montone and Agustin Nunez are top of the goal scoring table with three goals apiece.
Canada v Belarus
Canada (WR:10) came into this match knowing that nothing less than a convincing win of five goals or more would leave them with a chance of qualifying through to the semi-finals and avoiding the cross-over match. Even if they were to win, their final placement still depended upon the result of the Austria v Wales match. This was the first game in a day full of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’.
Both teams began brightly, although Canada created more scoring chances. Early attempts from Player of the Match Jamie Wallace drew a series of good saves from Belarus’ goalkeeper Raman Vitko.
The deadlock was broken by a super piece of skill from Sukhi Panesar. His cross-goal pass found Brenden Bissett who had no problem touching the ball home.
Minutes later Canada doubled their lead and Bissett doubled his tally when a penalty corner led to a goal mouth scramble and Bissett was on hand to score again.
Canada’s Oliver Scholfield celebrated his 50th cap for his team with the third goal. Again, this was a case of a rebounded shot falling kindly and Scholfield made no mistake tapping in to make it 3-0.
Belarus proved once again that they were not in Kuala Lumpur to make up numbers as they fought back with determination and were rewarded with a neatly taken goal from Vadzim Bandarchuk.
However, this served to spur Canada on and just seconds later Wallace was able to collect a beautifully weighted through ball and lift it coolly over the ‘keeper. Iain Smythe made it 5-1 as he also showed presence of mind to lift it over the on-rushing Vitko and tuck the ball into the Belarus goal.
Canada’s hopes of finsihing top of the group were dashed when Ihar Yahoshchankau made it 5-2 with a neatly taken goal from open play. Canada continued to seek the goal buffer they needed and Scott Tupper rounded off the Canada goal count with a penalty corner in the last minute.
“We scored goals today, which was nice,” said Oliver Schofield, “But we knew what we needed to do, so it is disappointing.
“In the first pool game we were a bit flat and it wasn’t a good performance. We put that behind us and moved on and we will now prepare for whichever team we meet in the crossover match.”
Wales v Austria
Wales and Austria seemed to be on an energy-saving mission as they played out a goalless first half in the sticky heat of the Bukit Jalil National Hockey Stadium. With Wales only needing a draw to progress as Pool A winners but Austria being in with a good chance of winning the pool if they won, the stage was set for an intriguing contest.
Austria’s zonal play made it difficult for Wales to mount many attacking plays, and the few chances that did come their way were not maximised. Austria for their part seemed happy to work the ball around and wait for an opportunity to strike.
In the second half, Austria began to pile a little more pressure on the Welsh circle, setting their press higher up the field. They were marshalled from the defence by captain and Player of the Match Xaver Hasun.
Wales countered by taking the pace out of the game and swinging the ball around the field, maintaining possession in their own defensive half.
The deadlock was finally broken when Dominic Uher rifled home a zinger of a penalty corner shot. The ball flew with precision past James Fortnam into the Welsh goal to give Austria a 1-0 lead.
That lead was doubled when Florian Streyer converted a second penalty corner with just five minutes left on the clock. Wales continued to push for a goal but Austria are a disciplined side and were never going to let their grip on the match slip.
“We didn’t handle the ball very well going forwards,” said Lewis Prosser as he assessed Wales’ performance. “We did dominate for patches but we just weren’t clinical enough in the attack and we certainly didn’t deal with their counter attack as well as we could have. They play a zone and, in this heat, it was very hard to break that zone down.
“We will get our minds right and plan how we are going to play in the next round, depending on who we end up playing,” he added.
A delighted Dominic Uher said: “It is always nice to score but it doesn’t matter who scores. We practice in training and it is nice to do it in the game.
“We knew this was going to be a tough group but we knew we could compete. We didn’t know much about Canada but we know Wales quite well. It was also good that we had a good start against the Belarus team. We played with patience in this game. Now we are looking forward to the semi-finals.”
Brazil v China
An intense first quarter brought three goals and the promise of a fiercely contested encounter between two teams both desperate to avoid bottom place in Pool B. It was Brazil who got off to a blistering start as they rattled in two penalty corners in quick succession. First Yuri van den Heijden and then Joaquin Lopez put penalty corner strikes away with precision to give Brazil their first goals of the event.
China came back two minutes from the end of the quarter when Player of the Match Su Lixing received the ball, made himself some space and then hit the ball clinically past Rodrigo Faustino in the Brazil goal.
The third quarter saw both teams creating chances but it was China who found the back of the net, with Tu Yuan Lin bringing his side back to 2-2.
Brazilian hearts were finally broken in the 56th minute of the game when Dong Yang weaved his way through the defence to slot the ball home. The Brazliian bodies slumped on the ground as the final whistle blew told their own story.
“They played well today,” said Head Coach Claudio Rocha. “If they had played like that in the earlier games this would be a different story.”
It was a point with which Matheus Borges agreed: “We gave it all today and played really good hockey. We are devastated but pleased with our performance.”
China’s Head Coach Kim Sang Ryul was delighted: “That was not an easy game. They [Brazil] play a game of hockey we don’t know very well. We came back well, that was okay.”
This was the second consecutive game in which China had fought back from being down. The Head Coach praised his players’ never-say-die attitude. “We train to always keep our focus until the end of the game. We have ability to score goals at any time in the match. The players have a strong mentality and will keep going until the final whistle,” he added.
Malaysia v Italy
Italy’s incredible journey continues as they put paid to host nation Malaysia in a thrilling 4-2 encounter.
A well-worked penalty corner routine saw Thomas Keenan fire home a penalty corner drag flick to put his side ahead in the ninth minute of the game.
Italy maintained this lead until the 26th minute but a rasping penalty corner strike from Faizal Saari brought the scores back to level.
At this point of the game it might be reasonable to expect that Malaysia would settle and start to ask questions of the Italian defence but it was Italy who came out after half-time and made the next dent in the scoreline. Agustin Nunez, playing an inspirational captain’s role, jinked through the defence to slip the ball past Hairi Rahman in the Malaysia goal.
Malaysia were spurred into action and Razie Rahim answered the call with a fabulous penalty corner drag flick that flew into Francesco Padovani’s goal.
The tempo on the pitch and around the ground reached even higher levels when Italy scored their third goal. A fantastic penalty corner routine saw a dummy pass before Nunez scored his second goal to put Italy back into the lead.
And then, in a moment that stunned the Malaysia team, Francois Soir took a shot from wide of the circle and somehow it squeaked past Rahman’s near post to make it 4-2 to the lowest-ranked team in the competition.
“We changed our strategy at half-time to make more changes so we could work harder for a shorter time,” explained Agustin Nunez, adding that the incentive of an extra day’s rest was a he motivating factor.
“No-one can call us underdogs now,” said Giulio Ferrini. “We came as the lowest ranked team with just two training camps this year. We came to give it our best and we have come away with three wins, including two teams who were at the World Cup. We are surprising ourselves, it’s so exciting it’s frightening.”