In today's WorldHockey Olympic Qualifier final in Auckland, New Zealand grabbed the coveted first place and ticket to Beijing, wringing it from the hands of the Argentines who were inconsolable after having come so close and missed out for the second time after the Panamerican Games 5 months ago. Previously, France had pulled a surprise win over Ireland, and Trinidad&Tobago had booked their first victory of the tournament to take 5th place.
In the ultimately dramatic final, Argentina were the stronger team in the initial phase, and went one goal ahead when Lucas Vila deflected a penalty corner hit from brother Matias up into the roof of the goal. Unable to capitalize on their early advantage any more, Argentina had to watch New Zealand increasingly gain momentum.
They took the equalizer from Dave Kosoof in the 49th minute, but managed to pull one back three minutes later when Mati Vila sunk a penalty corner. With the pace of the game getting frantic, Argentina could no longer produce the supreme performance of the beginning of the match, and had to watch the game slip away. After a string of chances for New Zealand, Hayden Shaw gave his team the relieving equalizer with 4 minutes to go to keep alive their hopes of the Olympic tournament and take them to extra time.
In extra time, play went back and forth without either team being able to create much danger, but it was eventually New Zealand who got the lucky break, taking full advantage of a penalty corner with only secodsn on the clock. The Black Sticks' elation and their fans' celebrations came of course in stark contrast to the tears of the Argentines who for quite a while could not grasp the fact that they had let their ticket to Beijing slip from their hands a second time.
Previous to the final, in the match for 3rd and 4th place, France had surprisingly beat the Irish who were doubly disappointed after ending up in fourth place after having only missed out on the final on goal difference.
The teams went through the match's first half in a deadlock, both teams getting in some action but neither taking many chances. The Irish had a prime opportunity midway through the first 35 minutes, when they were awarded a penalty stroke, but a mediocre shot from Iain Lewers was saved by Julien Thamin. They were already ten minutes into the second half, when Andy Barbour made good use of a spot of bad positioning by the Rench goalkeeper to lob the ball over him and give his team the lead.
As in the day's first game between T&T and USA, tempers flared between the two teams that know each other well and always produce close games, and the yellow cards soon came out, first for Maxime Lanos of France, then John Jermyn of Ireland. France were the team with the slightly better discipline and concentration, and they celebrated the equalizer in the 64th minute, when Matthieu Durchon tapped in the rebound off a Frederic Soyez flick on a penalty corner.
Evenly matched not only on the scoreboard but also the field, play went back and forth, but France were the lucky team in the end, seeing captain Antoine Gouedard Comte booking a goal to his name with 52 seconds on the clock. Ireland pushed for a quick restart but ran out of time, and had to watch the French celebrate their bronze medal.
One might have been tempted to assume that the day wasn't going to get exciting before the all important final, as the other matches were for pride only really, but all three matches turned out to be entertaining, hard-fought and fiercely disputed. Trinidad&Tobago and the USA took the stage first on a warm but cloudy day to fight for fifth place in the event.
T&T opened the scoring midway through the first half, as Wayne Legerton took advantage of a penalty stroke awarded after a penalty corner had hit the body of a US defender. In a deja-vu experience, repeating yesterday's match's events, the USA then turned around the match with goals from Pat Harris, converting a penalty corner with a dragflick, and Jarred Martin, taking advantage of the next corner flick's rebound.
After the break however, Trinidad&Tobago this time managed to pull even again, when Atiba Whittington pushed the ball over the line at the end of a penalty corner variation for his first goal of the tournament - the 100th of the event. With the score now level again, the game grew increasingly physical, and tempers flared. Kwna Browne was yellow carded, and Wayne Legerton soon after, so that for almost three minutes, the USA had a two player advantage.
They could not capitalize on it however, instead seeing one of their own sent off with six minutes to go, and taking the winning goal for T&T while one man down. With Jed Cunningham off the field, it was Dwain Quan Chan who deflected a ball past the US goalkeeper, to give his team the first win of the tournament and 5th place in the final standings.
This concludes the Olympic Qualifier in Auckland, adding New Zealand to the list of qualified countries for the men's Olympic hockey tournament. Two open spaces remain for the winners of the qualifying tournaments in Chile and Kakamigahara in March and April respectively.
The individual awards of the tournament went to France (Fair Play Trophy), Juan Manuel Vivaldi of Argentina (Best Goalkeeper of the Tournament), Mark Gleghorne of Ireland (Topscorer), and Blair Hopping of New Zealand (Best Player of the Tournament).
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