Bhubaneswar — England secured a brilliant, battling display over Argentina, the Olympic champions, to halt a long winless streak over the world No 2 and advance to the World Cup semi-finals.
It was nerve-jangling to the end as a last-ditch sling into the circle by Gonzalo Peillat saw the ball bobble off George Pinner’s boot towards an Argentinian stick before ricocheting inches wide of England’s post. Cue jubilation in the England camp seconds later.
The 20-year wait is over. So is the four-year wait to atone for their 2014 World Cup semi-final defeat, as Argentina briefly had 12 men.
Here, they went down to nine men for the last salvos as time ticked away and so did their discipline. But still they managed to get that last effort in.
Yet England held on thanks to goals from Barry Middleton, Will Calnan and Harry Martin, interspersed with PC strikes by Peillat.
Middleton even saw the sharp end of one after stopping a thunderbolt on the line. He was in agony afterwards and was due to ice his hand overnight, with England assessing in the morning.
“It’s a nice feeling, apart from not being able to hold a stick,” said Middleton.
“We owed them one for four years ago. You’ve got to do the little things people don’t notice. You have to get hit, block the ball and do the dirty stuff. That’s what wins you these bigger games, not the fancy stuff.”
There were seven cards in all as England rallied from going behind to a Peillat strike – which leaked between George Pinner’s arm and body – and build on their tournament momentum.
Three times England went close after goal line clearances in the first half, while number one runner Lucas Rossi charged down both of England’s opening penalty corners.
But their chance finally came when Middleton slotted low and hard past Juan Vivaldi.
We saw more industrious running from Zach Wallace, who started a central run before being impeded in Argentina’s circle. A third and fourth corner routine went awry, even with Argentina down to three defenders after a green card.
But Middleton was a class act as he cut the Argentinian defence open by launching an aerial pass forward, with seconds left of the third quarter hooter, which found Calnan in acres of space at the top of the circle.
He allowed himself one touch and the Hampstead & Westminster forward beat Vivaldi inside his right post.
Soon, Argentina were in the thick of the action and a trio of penalty corners. With their third, Peillat again dispatched low to the backboard as Middleton was left nursing a stinging hit.
Two minutes later, Peillat again stepped up and again Pinner was beaten through the arm.
With the next attack came England’s third as the ball looped into the circle and fell into Martin’s path to slot home.
Liam Ansell, full of confidence at this World Cup, then broke free with six minutes left but 39-year-old Vivaldi was in tune with the shot thanks to a full-length diving save.
For the second game running, England saw an opposition kicking back enter the fray as Argentina took off Vivaldi, but indiscipline continued to cost them with two late yellows.
They were in this position due to several factors, notably England’s defence which left Argentina short out of ideas in the circle.
Yet the Olympic champions still had chances. It came with four seconds left as Peillat drilled in that last-ditch pass. Seconds later, Pinner was dancing a jig with his defenders.
“It was nervy at the end,” said Middleton. “It’s good to give the ball away at the end sometimes to slow it. But it also gives one set play to sling it in. The boys were defensively amazing tonight.”
Mark Gleghorne added:”Tournament hockey is about getting better as you go along and you nailing the small details on the day. We have lots of work.”
That includes debriefing on those final, frantic moments.
“That’s why you have to be so on it,” added Gleghorne. “The ball shouldn’t have come in that way, and we will look at that.”
And so it was left to celebrate a breakthrough win over Argentina in England colours.
“It was a massive team performance,” said Martin. “We dug in and didn’t have much left in the legs and left it all out there.
“I was prepared for shoot outs and willing the ball to stay out. It was a brilliant performance.”
Australia became the second team through to the semi-finals when they beat France 3-0. They will meet either India or the Netherlands.