Men's FIH Pro League 2019: Belgium, Holland impress as Australia struggle at home
Wishful thinking indeed - but the participation of the fifth-best side in the world whose riveting pace and skill can stir up the galleries could have added a whole new dimension to a league which seems to all the ingredients to be a genuine crowd-puller.
Three enthralling matches in the space of three days has brought the Pro League alive leaving viewers hungry for more.
World Champions Belgium recorded an emphatic 4-1 win over Australia - the side they overtook to be perched atop the FIH world rankings for the first time ever, while the Dutch went past the hosts via a shootout after a dramatic comeback to earn a bonus point at Melbourne.
The Red Lions tame Australia at home
Sebastien Dockier scored the equalizer for the Red Lions just before the end of the first quarter after Daniele Beale had given Colin Batch's boys an early lead in the first minute.
Alexander Hendrickx who was the joint-highest scorer at the Odisha World Cup continued his good work with the drag-flicks, giving Belgium the lead just before half-time.
Tanguy Cosyns wasn't at Bhubaneswar, but the veteran sealed the deal for the Red Lions after Dockier had scored his second with both goals being scored in a packed third quarter.
The Aussies who began well failed to keep up the momentum in the second half - possibly, as a result of the intense tussle against Holland on Saturday, as master coach Siegfried Aikman pointed out to Sportskeeda.
"Today, Australia ended up playing two back-to-back matches while the Belgian side was fit. They had a short flight from New Zealand to Australia."
"Australia started well but as the match continued they lost focus and control. They made many technical mistakes. It’s all because of the rhythm."
Indeed, the Pro League does involve a grueling schedule involving a lot more travel than the players are used to. The World Champions began their Pro League campaign in Spain before traveling to New Zealand, and are now in Australia - all in the space of fifteen days!
After a sloppy start which involved a 2-2 draw (and a loss in the shootout) against Spain on January 19, the Belgians outplayed Argentina 4-2 a week later but were held to a 4-4 draw by New Zealand before winning the shootout in Auckland on Friday.
Dutch coach Max Caldas was on the sidelines watching the Red Lions in action against the kookaburras. Caldas had a lot to be pleased about for the manner in which his side fought back against the Australians in Saturday's super thriller.
Aussies fail to avenge Bhubaneswar semifinal defeat
Colin Batch's boys were all set to avenge their World Cup semifinal defeat in style with a commanding 5-2 lead at the end of the third quarter, but the Dutch had other ideas.
Three goals in the space of fifteen minutes stunned the hosts and set up a shootout which ended in disastrous fashion for the Aussies who managed to score just once.
The World Cup silver-medalists, on the other hand, found the back of the net four times and earned a valuable bonus point for winning the shootout.
At Bhubaneswar, Eddie Ockenden of Australia had scored at the death to take the match into a shootout where the Dutch prevailed, as Aikman recalled.
"Great match and physically tough. For me, it was a reverse match from the one we saw at the World Cup. The shootout outcome was the only one which remained the same."
"Australia was very effective in the beginning and physically more in balance - that’s why they could play together as a unit. They had better control of the ball and were highly effective with their chances."
"In the second half, Holland played with more passion and more pressure trying to create one-two's, and due to that, they could make more successful block tackles - because of that, the first one in the press felt more comfortable to win more balls too."
"They pressurized Australia well but it was Australia who managed to score - and after that, the Dutch kept fighting and were very effective in their turnovers."
Despite the result, the FIH master-coach was not particularly impressed with the manner in which the Dutch executed their drag flicks.
The World Cup silver-medalists converted only one of the seven short corners that they earned, and the PC drought that began at Bhubaneswar seems to be continuing.
"Holland has serious problems with their PC's - they missed too many," said Aikman.
Is India missing out?
The quality of hockey at the Pro League has been of a very high standard and the spectators seem to be enjoying the action too.
"What I like most is the high quality of passing and the fact that the players are giving all they have. That is something we can never achieve with training," says Aikman, who adds that the Indians who have opted not to be a part of the Pro League are not just missing out on some great action, but may slip behind as well.
"India may miss a huge opportunity to grow. The eight teams participating will turn out to be the top eight in the world which will cause a big gap between the other teams that are not in the league."
"It would have been good for hockey as a whole - not only for India if they would have participated."