There was a great deal of talk on the eve of the India-Netherlands clash over the Dutch not coming to India with their first-choice side because many players are either busy preparing for the Euro Hockey League or doing Junior World Cup duty in South Africa. To call a spade a spade, it can’t be India’s focus area if the visitors took a call to field a second-string or even a third-string side in a tournament having the stature of FIH Pro League. Indian eves did what they had to do – give their best shot and prevailed over the Netherlands by the odd goal in three – their first win over the Dutch in 48 years – they last beat them 1-0 at the 1974 World Cup at France.
The Orange Army came to India without four-time Olympian striker Lidewij Welten, celebrated defender and three-time Olympian Margot Van Geffen, midfielder duo of Marloes Keetels and Laura Nunnink and forward Matla Frederique – all of whom are part of the Den Bosch side in the Euro Hockey League. The team is also sans the presence of their most capped player – Eva De Goede. The collective international experience of Eva Van Geffen, Lidewij Welten and Margot Van Geffen is over 700 internationals and their massive expertise was surely missed by the Dutch.
Despite a side packed with greenhorns, it was the Netherlands who put on the defensive with two early penalty corners but Indian captain Savita was able to keep India out of danger. India soaked up the early pressure and gained in confidence, showing strong control of the ball. The Indians sounded more assured in midfield and defence – Sushila Chanu, Nikki Pradhan, Neha Goyal, Gurjit Kaur, Sonika Tandi and Jyoti worked tirelessly to make things difficult for the Dutch. Savita was outstanding in the Indian cage – literally leading from the front, thwarting the Netherlands time and again.
India profited from their first short corner – Gurjit Kaur relayed it to Navneet Kaur, who appeared to enjoy the extra responsibility in the forwardline in the absence of so many regulars, fed a precise pass to Neha Goyal, who tapped home amidst a goalmouth melee.
The Blueskirts enhanced their control of the match making the most of another short corner. Deep Grace Ekka unleashed the shot that was saved by the Dutch goalkeeper Kiki Gunneman but Sonika Tandi in a goalmouth scramble put the ball in as India went into half-time break, brimming with confidence.
The Netherlands came hard at India in the second half and won a crucial penalty stroke that resulted from a short corner when skipper Renee Van Laarhoven’s drag-flick was saved by Savita but the rebound shot hit Monika Malik on the body. Yibbi Jansen converted the stroke even as Savita nearly produced a brave save, even as the ball crushed her right leg and rolled in.
India would have less than 24 hours to regroup as they face off in the second leg tie at 3:30 pm on Sunday.