ODISHA HOCKEY WORLD CUP SEMI-FINAL PREVIEW GUIDE
And then there were four. Emulating the achievement of their footballing countrymen, England were first to qualify for the World Cup semi-finals with a tough and inspired performance against Argentina.
France had already shown chinks in the Argentinean armour and a galvanised England proved the doubters right. With typical resolute defence and an attack led by the wonderful Liam Ansell, England’s pressure had the normally composed and compact Los Leones defenders scrambling.
Gonzalo Peillat’s penalty corner had put Argentina ahead in the second quarter but after Barry Middleton had equalised just before the half-time break, they were chasing the game. Growing in confidence, England went ahead through Will Calnan and despite Peillat bringing the South Americans level, Harry Martin scored the all-important third immediately after from the sort of scramble that an in-form Argentina would normally expect to deal with.
Australia, meanwhile, ended the French dream with a relatively comfortable 3-0 scoreline. The increased pressure of the knock-out finals was obvious though and Australia would be disappointed not to have converted any of their turnovers they created into field goals. Three penalty corners will give them confidence in their set plays but they will be aware that they need to be more efficient in converting the likely fewer opportunities they create against the Dutch.
On Thursday, we saw two close games but both winning coaches would be delighted with the way that Belgium and the Netherlands negotiated their way into the last four. 2-1 can hardly be described as an easy or convincing scoreline but both teams dealt with their opponents as well as they could have hoped.
For Belgium, the fact that they prevented Germany from forcing any penalty corners was both a great achievement and important building block in being the better team over the 60 minutes. That they didn’t concede a goal shot in the seven minutes that Germany played with an extra field player tells you how dominant they were.
It’s only tiny margins at this level and Germany is the team that plays with the extra player better than anyone else. Of course Shane McLeod would have loved a third goal but he’ll nonetheless be delighted at the way his team have advanced against the toughest of opponents.
And no doubt Max Caldas will be in a similar mood. To come from one down against the home team in front of their adoring crowd spoke volumes about the character and quality of the Dutch.
Their win was certainly not as one-sided as the Belgians but critically they had the advantage in possession, turnovers and penalty corners, effectively limiting the sort of ball that India needed and also giving the clinical Mink van der Weerden enough opportunity to find the winner.
So, will we have an all-European final, and if so, who will play the Dutch? Or will Australia get one step further to an incredible third World Cup in a row? The form book says that Belgium should have too much for England but it’s a brave pundit who dares write-off a Danny Kerry team that is clearly growing in confidence and belief.
Penalty corners could be the decider in that one, with the in-form Alexander Hencrickx, Tom Boon and Loïck Luypaert providing just as great a threat for Belgium as Argentina but with a better defence at the other end.
And the Australia Netherlands game has all the makings of a classic. In the four years since they met in the final of 2014 much had changed.
The likes of Dwyer, Knowles, Turner and Hammond have retired but the Kookaburras have rebuilt brilliantly since the disappointment of Rio under Colin Batch and have returned to the top of the world rankings. Their fast attacking style remains but now with a much improved technical base, not too dissimilar to their opponents.
The Dutch on the other hand, now with Max Caldas at the helm, are unquestionably tougher than they were when Australia overwhelmed 5-1 in the final four years ago in the Hague. After losing 5-0 to the Belgians in front of their home crowd at last year’s Euros, it was notable how calm and focused they remained, even when they were 2-0 down to the same team in the final. To score four to win a Euro final is one things but against a team that has put seven in a row past you tells you there’s plenty of belief in the Dutch that Australia might find too difficult to overcome.
I think a shoot-out might decide that one, with Tyler Lovell proving to be the hero once again.