Rio Olympics 2016 hockey: Can Team India recover in time from last-gasp defeat to Germany?

In the dying seconds of their Olympic group stage hockey match against Germany, there was no way the Indian hockey team could have looked at the clock.

But in their minds, the seconds were ticking, as Germany commenced a rare offensive move. With less than 10 seconds left, like Usain Bolt‘s 100m timer, Martin Haner’s shot came from outside the striking circle at the Indian goal, the word “hope” embossed all over the ball. A bunch of Indian and German sticks thrust at the ball. Christopher Ruhr’s was one of those sticks, and the ball took a cruel deflection off it. Indian goalkeeper P Sreejesh frantically tried reaching it, but the arc was too high and the ball hit the post and went in.

Germany had clinched a game that looked destined to be a draw. The two-time reigning champions had done what they do best — pull off a last-minute win — and they went berserk. India did what they have done so many times in the past — blown away their chances and lost a match in the final seconds.

Rio de Janeiro : India's Rupinder (R) celebrates after a goal against Germany at Rio Olympics 2016 at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Monday. India lost the match by 1-2. PTI Photo by Atul Yadav(PTI8_8_2016_000324B)

Rio de Janeiro : India’s Rupinder (R) celebrates after a goal against Germany at Rio Olympics 2016 at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Monday. India lost the match by 1-2. PTI Photo by Atul Yadav(PTI8_8_2016_000324B)

Germany won a match dominated by India. They now have six points to India’s three, with the latter having just one win over Ireland. For Germany, the scorers were Niklas Wellen (17) and Christopher Ruhr (59:57’). For India, the only goal came off a Rupinder Pal Singh penalty corner flick in the 22nd minute.

However, apart from the first quarter, where Germany pushed hard on the left flank and switched moves fast, it was India all the way. They took hold of the game, ensured few errors in midfield and fewer missed passes, but more penetrative moves. Normally, German sides are used to seeing India defend and commit errors. But this was a different India. They kept possession. There were times when Germany went without the ball for over a minute — a huge time lapse in a hockey match.

India will continue to hurt till their next match, where they face Argentina, an extremely tricky opponent. They will hurt whenever they look at the clock. They will feel the pain because memories are not wiped off like files on a hard disk. If ever there was a time when a psychologist could have helped them, this was it.

Such defeats have a way of getting into the blood stream and staying there. Indian coach Roelant Oltmans would need a complete blood transfusion for the team; clean, fresh blood unsullied by this painful defeat. But it’s a world of professional sport. And this is not the team that played hockey in the 70s, 80s or even the 90s. This is a bunch of guys who believe in their ability. And they will come out like men, holding the stick ever more firmly.

Somewhere in Mumbai, Dhanraj Pillay would have watched this match and remembered that late evening in Sydney when India led 1-0 against Poland. A win would have given India a semi-final spot. But Poland equalised with 50 seconds to go. Dhanraj, distraught, wept like a baby and for days couldn’t get over it. His teammates were lying prone all across the Olympic Stadium turf. Coach Vasudevan Bhaskaran, with deputy Harindra Singh had a tall task to bring them back to the realisation that it was just a game.

Oltmans too will have his hands full. But he would also have Sardar Singh, Sreejesh and assistant coach Tushar Khandkar’s help in bringing the boys back.

Video replays will tell them that they could have wrapped up this match by a couple of goals. In the second quarter, India started playing across the pitch. But Germany got the early lead in a surprise move. Linus Butt bent over the ball, and moved menacingly towards the Indian striking circle. His pass on the right side of Niklas Wellen saw the German forward take a snap shot on the wrong side of Sreejesh, who was protecting his left angle. It was a tremendous opportunistic goal.

India came back strongly, and soon earned their first penalty corner. Rupinder Pal Singh’s powerful flick beat the German defence and their goalkeeper Nicolas Jacobi on pure speed. The scores had been equalised at 1-1.

The moves, even if they were building up slowly, were coming for India. Raghunath moved up frequently, shielding the ball and hitting across the German circle. One hit found Nikkin but the forward fumbled with Jacobi’s pads in front. Akashdeep made a run across the German circle, like a compass threading a path and then slipped it for Nikkin who couldn’t trap. Two quarters later, India had not conceded a single penalty corner, a huge positive for the defence.

After the break, one did expect Germany to come out of their shell. But it was India who tied them down. India played possession, rotated it perfectly and waited for opportunities. Raghunath yet again went off on the offensive, going all the way on the right flank and his shot got caught in the German goalkeeper’s pads. India had their second penalty corner but this time the flick didn’t have the requisite power as Jacobi saved it off his gloves. A Ramandeep cross from the right found Nikkin, but the Indian forward fumbled yet again.

The fourth quarter was a tense affair. With the teams locked at 1-1, the coaches need to gamble on the tactics and India decided to keep the errors down. Germany looks for breaks in the midfield, picking off passes and creating goal bound moves. They were getting strangulated and with no space or ball, Germany was on the back foot. SV Sunil was rattling the Germans with his speed, breaking their formation. The Germans were afraid of the Indian counter attack. But Germany did get a penalty corner but the ball was deflected off Surender Kumar’s stick. India could have wrapped up the match off their 3rd penalty corner but the Rupinder Pal Singh flick got deflected off a defenders stick.

In the last minute, India should have hustled the Germans instead of letting them too deep into their half. The entire Indian team defended inside the striking circle allowing the Germans space to advance. That probably cost them dear. Extra space, dying seconds, that precious commodity ‘luck’ deciding to go over to the Germans as the ball whizzed in, deflecting in off Ruhr’s stick, ballooning over to hit the post and go in.

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