How to turn the tables. The current kings of hockey were toppled by dominant opponents who were a cut above in defence and on the counter as England men beat world champions Belgium for the first time in seven years on Sunday night at a sun-kissed Wagener Stadium.
Zach Wallace’s creativity, carry, transitional speed and license to attack proved the difference as the Surbiton man put in another memorable shift in an England and Great Britain shirt. He first scored from an early penalty stroke and then carved through the Red Lions kingdom to set up the winner for Liam Ansell and a first European Cup defeat for Shane McLeod’s side since the 2017 final.
“We contained them pretty well and they are a high quality side over the last few years,” said the outstanding Wallace. “We’ve been working on our counter attack, we committed to it well and we got a few outcomes.”
England’s 2-1 win puts them top of Pool A and needing only a point to qualify for the semi-finals ahead of their final game against Spain, which had been billed as a likely decider for the final four pre-tournament.
Although this win was unexpected, there were signs that the world No 1 side were not at full power after the Top League’s season-ending domestic campaign and a recent 4-0 Pro League defeat to Holland. Tapering ahead of the Olympics? Only time will tell.
Wallace had given England the lead in the fourth minute from a stroke, the Red Lions responding from the same result a minute later through Tom Boon. There were a speight of early penalty corners, while Ansell and Wallace were green carded in the first quarter, setting the tone for the match: five in total and three yellow cards late on, crucially two for an increasingly rattled Belgium, who were down to nine at one point.
Yet, with England holding a one goal advantage, Belgium were offered some respite when Sam Ward was also yellow carded in the circle with eight minutes left.
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England survived the tide for those five minutes as Ward returned. Yet it wasn’t an easy watch as Danny Kerry’s side failed to maintain possession, turnover ball omnipresent as the world champions camped in England’s half until three seconds from time when a free hit was awarded in Ollie Payne’s circle.
“Later in the game, the chat and the communication goes when you are physically tired,” admitted Wallace afterwards. Little wonder that goalkeeper Payne, who put in another good shift, said afterwards that he was now “buzzing”.
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