Not many gave India a chance to pull off a win against a red hot world No. 3 Belgium side on Wednesday but the team produced its best show when it mattered the most.
In a thrilling 3-2 win via sudden-death shootout to decide the second quarterfinal, India brought cheer back to the home fans in the Hockey World League (HWL) Final being played at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar.
The four quarters ended at 3-3, which is when the young India custodian Akash Chikte stepped up to the plate and denied the Belgians on four occasions in the one-on-one shootout, where the striker gets eight seconds to beat the goalkeeper and score.
Both the teams scored twice in the penalty shootout and missed on three occasions, which took the game to sudden death.
Only Lalit Upadhyay and Rupinder Pal Singh scored for India, while Harmanpreet Singh, Sumit and Akashdeep Singh failed to beat Belgian goalkeeper Vincent Vanasch.
For the Red Lions, Florent van Aubel and Arthur van Doren dodged Chikte to put the ball inside India goal.
The sudden death required just one attempt from each side, in which Harmanpreet scored but Van Doren’s attempt was saved by Chikte, which was followed by the Indian team running and leaping onto their star ‘keeper for taking them to the semis.
Before the shootout drama unfolded, the two teams played out entertaining 60 minutes of hockey that produced six goals before the hooter signalled full-time at 3-3.
After a goal-less but pacy first half, Gurjant Singh put India ahead in the 31st minute. Harmanpreet doubled India’s lead four minutes later as he was beautifully set up by fellow defender Rupinder Pal who sold a dummy to the rusher on a penalty corner.
The Belgians rode on the brilliance of dragflicker Loick Luypaert, who cut India’s lead in a 39th-minute penalty corner.
The 46th minute saw two goals. First Luypaert increased his tournament goals’ tally to six off another lethal PC strike and made it 2-2. Seconds later, India too earned a PC, which was turned into a goal by Rupinder to put the hosts back into lead.
Amaury Keusters (53rd) brought the red shirts back in contention with his field goal to make it 3-3.
“It (the win) is a really positive one against one of the best teams in the world,” said India coach Sjoerd Marijne. “I think we played better than the previous match.”
Captain Manpreet Singh said the team played like it was the final.
“All of us treated this as the final because we were playing a knockout match against one of the best teams. Our focus was on defensive structure and counter attacks and we wanted to make sure that we converted our PCs.
“Our finishing was a plus point today, because we had worked on it since the last match,” the skipper said in the post-match press conference.
Manpreet, however, refused to treat this win as revenge for the defeat at the hands of Belgians in the quarterfinal at the Rio Olympics last year.
“We never thought of revenge or anything like that. We concentrated on playing to our potential. We had studied Belgium, their strengths and weaknesses and played according to that and also controlled the game according to our pace,” he explained.
India will now play the first semifinal scheduled for Friday against the winners of the quarterfinal between Olympic champions Argentina and England.