On the first day of the first women's Olympic Qualifier here in Baku, Spain dispatched Belarus, the Ukraine sailed past Kenya, and Chile put in a good performance against the host, but eventually could not avoid defeat.
The day started off with tournament top seed Spain meeting the sixth ranked girls from Belarus. The Spanish clearly dominated the first half, with Belarus mostly busy defending. Despite their overwhelming superiority, the team around Nuria Camon and Silvia Muñoz just could not get on the scoreboard however until Maria Romagosa finally made good use of Spain's fifth penalty corner of the match shortly before half-time, seeing her first attempt warded off but capitalizing on the rebound.
The second half got off to a good start for the Spaniards however, as Barbara Malda scored her first with less than a minute on the clock, and added another soon after, scooping a long pass over the Belarussian goalkeeper. The team was in an active phase now, attacking relentlessly, with Malda and Maria Romagosa doing much of the work up front and creating a number of opportunities.
Spain had now picked up momentum, and added a fourth in the 55th minute through Raquel Huertas who finished off a penalty corner, establishing the 4-0 final score, while their Belarussian counterparts were fading fast, fighting doggedly but looking exhausted. Overall, Spain won deservedly bt may well find their low conversion rate may come to haunt them when they play more difficult opponents over the next week.
The subsequent match was between Ukraine and Kenya, the Africans still struggling from the ordeal of their travel to Baku, which saw them shortstopped in Dubai for visa issues and had them arrive only a few hours before their first encounter after a prolonged wait in Dubai.
The first half of the match imitated the first match of the day, with the Ukraine being the better prepared side with superior technical skills but failing to make anything off that. They worked hard for their two goal half-time lead, and wasted away countless chances but were saved by the mercurial Maryna Vynohradova, dazzling with her stickwork and getting her team on the scoreboard first in the 23rd minute.
Diana Tahiyeva added a second goal just before half-time to send the teams into the break at 2-0. The spell was broken now, and Bohdana Sadova capitalized on another short corner - the ninth for Ukraine in the match - on the rebound before Maryna Vynohradova piled on two more for a hattrick, and Juliia Nonko sank a penalty corner in the final minute to make it 6-0.
Despite the explicit result, it was a creditable performance from the Kenyans, especially taking into account the circumstances, and the team certainly showed some potential - more so than anyone else their goalkeeper Josephine Ataro Achieng who enthralled with her absolute dedication to the task and pulled a number of amazing saves, keeping down a scoreline that might well have spiralled into the two-digit zone otherwise.
The hosts from Azerbaijan finally wrapped up the day in a stadium filled to capacity during the opulent and impressive opening ceremony and the team's first match, butting heads with the much lower ranked Chilean side.
After an early goal by Dilfuza Mirzaliyeva, hammering a ball past Chilean goalkeeper Claudia Schuller for what was supposed to be the start to a goal spree, the hosts dominated play in the first half of their encounter but lacked the finishing touch, like Spain and the Ukraine before.
18-year-old Sofia Walbaum played a pivotal role in the Chilean defense, impressing with a keen sense of the game and excellent stick skills, exasperating the home team who have such high ambitions in this event but could not spread their wings and get off the ground today. Chile had a number of opportunities to equalize, but paid the price for the numerous wasted chances midway through the second half as a supposed Azerbaijan goal was referred to the video umpire but upheld, to the Chileans' great dismay.
Temporarily deflated by the disputed decision, the South Americans were not about to give up however, and scored their first goal little later, when Daniela, one of the four Infante sisters on the squad, finished of a great solo run with a furious hit from the edge of the circle.
The rest of the match was an open back-and-forth, Chile holding their own against the much higher ranked Azerbaijan women, but the clock ticked down mercilessly, and the match ended with Azerbaijan holding on to their lead to preserve their ambitions. The home team did not impress today however, and will have to step up their game against sides like Spain and Ukraine, while Chile punched above their weight, and made a promise of interesting matches to come.
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