At the WorldHockey Olympic Qualifier today, the USA booked their first win against Trindad&Tobago, previously unbeaten Argentina was defeated by Ireland, and New Zealand beat France to join Argentina in tomorrow's all important final.
The day started off with an entertaining encounter between the USA and Trinidad&Tobago. Both teams were already certain to meet again in tomorrow's match for 5th and 6th place, so today's butting of heads was mostly for pride - and testing and sounding out the opponent. The latter was at least that was what the USA seemed to see it as, leaving two of their experienced players in the stands and giving playing time to the youngsters, while Trinidad&Tobago took the match more seriously, keen to get their first points in the tournament.
The USA started off in a blaze however, but failed to convert, while midway through the first half, T&T pulled ahead. Akim Toussaint took advantage of some great lead-up work to finish off with a reverse stick shot, and Kwan Browne added a penalty corner conversion four minutes later. The USA were not about to be quite that easily beaten however, and pulled one back before the break through Pat Harris who used the USA's first penalty corner of the match wisely.
The second half of the match continued to provide some good hockey to entertain the sizeable crowd that had turned out for the last round of pool play at the WorldHockey Olympic Qualifier. The USA picked up where the first half had ended and never let T&T back into the game, adding three more goals through the course of the second half to turn the match around.
Andy Sheridan brought the USA level, then heaved them ahead with near identical goals from penalty corner deflections, and Jarred Martin added the 'safety' goal in the 66th minute, the goal that sealed his side's win. Both teams now meet again tomorrow, with the USA taking a boost of confidence into the match, while Trinidad&Tobago are chasing their first win in this tournament.
Next up were Argentina and Ireland, a crucial game in the decision of the competition's finalists. While things could go any way for Ireland, depending on the result of the following match, Argentina had a clear mission: to not lose by more than one goal. A win, draw, or defeat with no more than one goal difference was going to give them a secure spot in the final, while losing by two or more would put them at the Black Sticks' mercy.
In a tough and hard-fought match, the two teams gave each other a run for their money, producing fast paced end-to-end hockey but few dangerous situations. After a goalless first half, the pace turned frantic, and tempers started to flare in the sceond half, especially after teh Irish toed the threshold to the final when Ronan Gormley scored on the rebound from a penalty corner drag flick. With only one goal separating them from the elusive final and hanging on to the chance for Olympic Qualification, Ireland went all out but met an Argentine team all too aware of the situation and stonewalling the Irish efforts. Dave Passmore's team attacked relentlessly, but the Argentineans had the easier task, only having to cling to the result that just served them to be safe, and the South Americans were visibly relieved when the siren sounded, ending the match at 0-1.
In the day's final match, hosts New Zealand took on France, and for the Black Sticks, it was an all-or-nothing game: after Ireland's win, they had to win too, with any result, to reach the final at the expense of the Irish who were sitting in the stands with anxious faces.
France came out showing no respect, and had a handful of early opportunities, but the Kiwis soon enough paved their road to the final. Having been awarded a penalty stroke, the hosts pulled away in the 13th minute thanks to captain Ryan Archibald. Phil Burrows added a second goal less than a minute later, finishing of a great solo run with a spectacular reverse stick hit into the net.
The two goals set France back, and eventually turned out to be enough for New Zealand to take the game and their place in the final alongside Argentina. In a game without great highlights, apart from Phil Burrows' first half goal, New Zealand worked they way through time while France made every effort to get on the scoreboard but failed time and again in the face of the massive defending the Kiwis put on the field. New Zealand had slight advantages but could not increase the tally thanks to a few good saves from Julien Thamin and excellent defense work from Christoph Musgens, including a sliding save that prevented a certain goal in the form of a shot on the empty goal.
The match thus ended 2-0 for New Zealand, the Black Sticks booking their place in the final at the expense of the Irish, sitting in the stands, including team captain Paddy Brown who unfortunately will have to remember his 150th cap, making him the most capped Irish player ever, as the match that crushed his team's Olympic dream.
Pool play thus ends with New Zealand claiming the number 1 spot, followed by Argentina, Ireland and France, the USA and Trinidad&Tobago.
Play concludes tomorrow Sunday with the classification matches between Trinidad&Tobago and the USA for 5th place, and Ireland and France for bronze, followed by the all important final between Argentina and
New Zealand that will decide which one of those two teams book their tickets to Beijing.
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