Tokyo 2020: India defeat Olympic hockey champions Argentina, dream big
The last time an Indian men’s hockey team defeated the defending champions at the Olympics was when Lal Bahadur Shastri was the Prime Minister, the country’s cricket team was yet to win a Test series abroad and The Beatles were yet to release ‘Let it be’.
In the final of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, India beat arch-rivals and holders Pakistan 1-0 to claim gold—their seventh at the Olympics. In Tokyo on Thursday, Manpreet Singh and his men beat the 2016 Rio champions Argentina 3-1 to move into the quarter-finals.
The win is significant, especially after the 1-7 debacle against Australia on Sunday, as it cements India’s second position in Group A behind the world No.1 outfit, having secured wins against New Zealand and Spain earlier for a likely easier draw in the last-8 clash.
“Feeling great after the win, but there’s a lot of things to improve,” defender Rupinder Pal Singh told Reuters. “The important games are coming in a few days.”
India proved that their back-to-back wins against Argentina in their own backyard in Buenos Aires in April was a reliable indicator of the level of hockey they are playing right now. India, now ranked No.3 in the world, were clearly the superior side at the Oi Hockey Stadium on Thursday, enjoying 53 percent of possession and made 28 circle penetrations—compared to Argentina’s meagre eight—and eight penalty corner opportunities to their opponent’s two.
India’s intent to put Argentina under the pump from the start was evident: they kept possession and made multiple forays into the circle and had a shot on goal as early as the fourth minute.
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The midfield and forward line kept the Argentine defence busy throughout the game with the defence compact, so much so that Argentina’s first real attempt at a goal came towards the end of the first half and was blocked by the ever-reliable PR Sreejesh. Yet, the goals refused to come. Some of it was because of solid goalkeeping from Argentina’s Juan Manuel Vivaldi and some of it was just India’s failure to put the finishing touch.
But India were rewarded for their attacking intent (they created 14 chances to Argentina’s 6) when Varun Kumar, playing his first match in Tokyo, scored in the 43rd minute from a penalty corner. Things got tense when, three minutes into the last quarter, Argentina equalised. India attacked with renewed intent and in a thrilling finish Vivek Sagar Prasad (58th) and drag-flick ace Harmanpreet Singh (59th) scored to take the match away.
“Good performance today,” said India chief coach Graham Reid. “This is what Argentina can do: they sit back in the game, and then all of a sudden they score a corner. You know these things can happen when you play a team like Argentina. We created enough (but wasted opportunities). What was good is that we didn’t let that frustrate us, we stayed patient and stuck with the game plan.”
India will next play hosts and reigning Asian Games champions Japan, who are yet to win a game in the group stage.
“I’m very happy, it can be a bit stressful too for me but we just now need to play well against our next opponent—Japan. We need to play it as though it is the quarter-finals and we will be keeping an eye on what happens in the other pool at the same time,” added Reid.
From Group B, world champions Belgium, Netherlands and Great Britain have qualified for the last eight.