"Thank heavens for Evans" read a poster displayed by the Irish supporters at the start of their opener at the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Center in London, England. It wasn't Nicola Evans, however, but her fellow striker Dierdre Duke who the Green Army fans needed to thank as she sunk the Americans with a brace that threw Pool B wide open at the Women's Hockey World Cup 2018.
Underdogs come to the party
The Indians very nearly stunned hosts England, but the upsets which followed have been quite a revelation.
The minnows are having a field day at London as Italy, the lowest-ranked team in the World Cup, blanked the Chinese girls 3-0. The Irish ranked 16th -- just one rung above the Italians, now find themselves perched snugly atop their pool, ahead of India and England after humbling seventh-ranked USA.
The Irish girls delivered a long overhead pass which beat every single American on the field but found Deirdre Duke in the striking circle. Jackie Briggs in goal did narrow the angle and dived to the left as best as she could, but Duke scooped the ball in and the Irish had the lead in five minutes.
Shirley McCay then scored off a PC to give minnows Ireland a 2-0 lead in the twelfth minute. The USA replied with a brilliant PC goal of their own at the end of the first quarter but could not inflict any further damage for the rest of the match and found the crossbar once.
The Irish nailed the match as Duke scored the third goal, off a break, as she was totally unmarked in the circle and had enough time to dodge and pause before beating goalkeeper Briggs yet again.
Ayeisha McFerran was outstanding in goal and ensured that the Irish girls earned three vital points with a 3-1 win complicating the permutations.in India's pool. Rani Rampal's girls will deservedly feel proud of their performance against hosts England but may rue the fact that they were unable to find the winner especially in light of Ireland's victory.
India will be up against Ireland in their second encounter and they must win to bolster their hopes of making it to the knockout stage.
India need to overcome memories of Johannesburg
India failed to earn a single PC against hosts England and Gurjit Kaur was denied the opportunity to display her prowess.
Against the Irish in the HWL Semifinals last year, it was Gurjit who gave India an early lead which the Irish canceled out a couple of minutes into the final quarter. A minute later, they found a second goal off a PC and the Indians had to be content with an eighth-place finish at Johannesburg.
A missed penalty stroke, a disallowed goal, and the inability to score a second in spite of brilliance in the circle are memories the Indians would very much like to put behind them when they take the field on Thursday.
The Indian coaching staff and senior players like Savita feel that Ireland can be beaten in spite of last year's loss. On the eve of the World Cup, the Indian goalkeeper was confident of India's chances.
"We have done well against Ireland in practice matches in the past," she said.
"In the match last year, we were leading and should have won for sure but conceding two PCs one after another proved costly. We have a strong defence and play an attacking brand of hockey -- this is a potent combination and makes us strong as a side," she added.
England were spectacular up front but the Indians were smart and compact in their opener. The final scoreline was the only number that was even with England managing to fire 15 shots on target while India did so just 4 times. Just a couple of minutes before England equalized, Lalremsiami started a brilliant move down the right flank but was unable to latch on to the final pass in the circle to seal the deal for India.
Getting the ball in the attacking half more often is something coach Sjoerd Marijne wanted the girls to do against England and feels that the players need to retain possession more often. The English girls managed to penetrate the Indian circle 34 times but allowed the Indians just 10 entries into theirs.
As such, pinning the blame for England's equalizer on Deepika's defensive error may be misplaced as coach Sjoerd Marijne pointed out.
"It was really tough to defend in the end and you cannot say it was just that mistake which cost us a win. We controlled the match really well and created opportunities too. I am proud of the team."
Sunita Lakra used her stick to block a shot from point-blank range and her failure to do so would have resulted in a goal for certain. Given the overall statistics, the Indian camp will look back at the draw as a fair result and a point in the bag is certainly better than none at all.
England face the USA in a Pool B clash tomorrow, the result of which may well have direct implications on India's progress in the tournament. For their part, the Golden Girls will be looking for a win the day after, but need to be at their absolute best against their lower-ranked adversaries.Published 24 Jul 2018, 19:03 IST