India remained unbeaten in the 2018 FIH Men's Hockey World Cup after playing out a 2-2 draw with Belgium in their second Pool C match on Sunday at the Kalinga Stadium, Odisha. India are fielding the youngest team in the tournament, with the average age little over 23 years. However, the young team matched their higher ranked opponents in every aspect of the game. Also, it will take the top spot in Pool C ahead of Belgium on goal difference. Both teams have a win and a draw from two outings. The team will play Canada in their last pool match on December 8, while Belgium will be up against South Africa on the same day.
Head coach Harendra Singh was all over his boys, and hailed the team's grit and fitness after the match, saying he has never seen such a fit Indian side. He also praised Robin Arkell, the team's scientific advisor, who was roped in March last year. “I feel proud about our fitness. Credit goes to Robin (Arkell). I have never seen such a fit Indian team,” he said. In the beginning of the match, the Indians looked completely out of sorts in the opening two quarters against Belgium. They lacked co-ordination in the midfield which in turn, gave them hardly any scoring opportunities. The Indians were slow to get off the blocks as the Red Lions dominated the proceedings in the first two quarters, threatening the hosts defence on a number of occasions.
Belgium got their first scoring opportunity in the second minute in the form of back-to-back penalty corners but failed to get past the Indian defence. Another penalty corner in the eighth minute resulted in Belgium's first goal through Hendricks, who sounded the board with a ground flick in between the legs of Indian custodian P R Sreejesh. Mere seconds from the first quarter, India had their first real scoring chance when Mandeep deflected wide a Dilpreet Singh lay over from Birendra Lakra's inch-perfect pass from the midfield. Five minutes into the second quarter, Dilpreet Singh shot wide from top right after being fed by skipper Manpreet Singh.
Harendra said he was not surprised by Belgium's “full press” tactics early on. “We were not surprised in the first quarter with Belgium's full press. We had discussed about it. They knew as the match progresses, India will be dangerous. My boys utilised the crowd's energy. In the first half, we were running behind the ball, we didn't have enough possession. We changed the structure slightly (at half-time). That worked really well. We started shifting the ball vertically,” he said. The home team looked more organised and their mid-field finally started to create opportunities. By the end, two minutes into the fourth and final quarter, Simranjeet scored his third goal of the tournament by tapping in from close range after being set up by Kothajit Singh's fine stick work from the left flank to hand India the lead. Thereafter, the game witnessed end-to-end attacking stuff with both the teams pressing hard in search of the decisive goal.
Belgium chose to withdraw their goal keeper for an extra player with little less than five minutes from the hooter, giving Simon Gougard space to score with a slap shot in between Sreejesh's legs late into the game. While India made several impressive moves in the final few minutes, Belgium defended fantastically despite the absence of their goalkeeper.