The FIH World Cup Qualifier in Lille, France, started smoothly for the favorites, with Japan cleanly dispatching Russia (4-0) and Pakistan having no problem to defeat Italy (5-0), but France had an unexpected setback, tying a hardly contested game against Poland (2-2).
The competition is played on the new turf of the Lille Metropole Hockey Club, in a facility very well prepared by the French Hockey Federation and the local Organizing Committee. Day 1 was played in cool but sunny conditions.
Game 1 – Japan v. Russia: 4-0 (half-time: 1-0)
The opening game started at full speed, with both team eager to warm up in the cool morning. Japan promptly took advantage of a Russian unforced error in midfield to set a quick counter-attack that found Kenta TANAKA at the top of the circle for the first goal of the competition in the 6th minute. The game then settled down; Japan tried to overwhelm their opposition with their superior speed, but could not surprise the very athletic and well organized Russian team.
Russian Captain Alexandre PLATONOV had a great opportunity to tie the game when he received the ball behind the Japanese defense, but his deflection was just over the crossbar. Even though Japan were temporarily reduced to ten players, Kenta TANAKA nearly increased the lead after a counter-attack that seemed harmless to start with, but found the Russian defense out of position. Japan had two other good opportunities in the closing minutes of the period but missed each time by inches.
Japan finally increased their lead in the 44th minute, when a ball crossed from the right was missed by a few players and reached Kazuhiro TSUBOUCHI unmarked on the far post. Russia did not give up easily, displaying some good collective organization and skills in tight space. They created chances but were consistently thwarted by Katsuya TAKASE in the Japanese goal.
Japan showed more realism at the other end and Kenta TANAKA scored his second goal of the day after pouncing on a ball loosely controlled by a Russian defender. He completed a hat-trick of field goals with 3 minutes to go in the match after a long run of more than fifty meters before crucifying Roman ROGOV in the Russian goal. With a four-goal cushion, Japan could control the end of the game to earn their first win of the competition.
Game 2 – Pakistan v. Italy: 5-0 (half-time: 1-0)
Pakistan camped in the Italian defensive zone from the opening whistle and created multiple opportunities, but scrambled some good chances (including their first penalty-corner) and rookie Italian goal-keeper Davide GUIDA denied them the rest of the times. They pleased the crowd with some fancy stick work but tried to make the difference individually, and were pushed back by the well regrouped and composed Italian defense.
It finally took a penalty-corner in the 31st minute for Sohail ABBAS to open the score, much to the relief of the boisterous flag waving Pakistani fans in the stands. The Italian nevertheless maintained their structure and reached the break with only the one goal deficit.
Early in the second half, Davide GUIDA made a superb save to deny Sohail ABBAS on his second penalty-corner attempt, but could not do much on the next attempt, this time by Muhammad IMRAN. With the floodgates now opened, the Italian resistance declined slightly and Pakistan scored three more goals, but the Italian players never gave up and should receive credit for their strong resistance to a much more experienced team.
Pakistan were never in danger in this game, but they might be unhappy with some of their untidy plays in the first half and with some of their wasted opportunities.
Game 3 – France v. Poland: 2-2 (half-time: 1-1)
Boosted by a vibrant rendition of La Marseillaise by the home crowd, the French team immediately pushed forward, and Frédéric SOYEZ had the crowd on their feet in expectation with a deflection that shaved the cross bar. But the Polish defense was expecting this initial burst and absorbed well the pressure. The game became more balance, with the Poles mounting some dangerous counter-attacks, and it is finally Marcin STRYKOWSKI who opened the score in the 17th minute with a swift deflection that surprised Henri-Julien LHOMME in the French goal.
The goal slowed down the French momentum for a few minutes, but they soon pushed forward again. They created multiple attacking opportunities but were unable to conclude them in the circle in front of Mariusz CHYŁA, in a very good day in the Polish goal. The French were finally rewarded just before the break when they earned a penalty-corner after yet another decisive rush by Frédéric SOYEZ on the right wing. The initial shot was saved but Matthieu DURCHON collected the rebound and slammed it in goal, much to the delight of the impatient fans.
Matthieu DURCHON earned another penalty-corner just after the break but the French tried an option that did not work. They did not miss the chance to take the lead a few minutes later on another penalty-corner, this time shot directly by Frédéric SOYEZ. The Polish team started to push forward more to come back in the match and the game shifted for a while in the French defensive zone. But this also gave more space at the other end, where the French attackers had some good chances to increase the score, including on a penalty-corner by Frederic SOYEZ that hit the post.
On the counter-attack that followed, Marcin STRYKOWSKI surprised again the French defense to score his second goal of the day and tie the game. He could have added a third one soon after but missed his control after going around the goal-keeper! In the last ten minutes, both teams threw caution to the wind and the game swung wildly from one end to the other, putting the crowd though all ranges of emotions, but no more goal was scored.
Although a close and tough game was expected, the French were certainly disappointed by a final result that does not start their qualification campaign with the expected momentum.
The FIH World Cup Qualifier continues tomorrow in Lille when Pakistan meet Russia, Japan take on Poland, and Italy conclude the day against host France.
FIH World Cup Qualifier, Men – Lille, France
Results Day 1: Saturday 31 October 2009
Japan - Russia 4:0 (1:0)
JPN 6mn Kenta TANAKA (FG) 1:0
JPN 44mn Kazuhiro TSUBOUCHI (FG) 2:0
JPN 52mn Kenta TANAKA (FG) 3:0
JPN 67mn Kenta TANAKA (FG) 4:0
Pakistan - Italy 5:0 (1:0)
PAK 31mn Sohail ABBAS (PC) 1:0
PAK 43mn Muhammad IMRAN (PC) 2:0
PAK 47mn Sohail ABBAS (PC) 3:0
PAK 52mn Muhammad ZUBAIR (FG) 4:0
PAK 68mn Abdul Haseem KHAN (FG) 5:0
France - Poland 2:2 (1:1)
POL 17mn Marcin STRYKOWSKI (FG) 0:1
FRA 35mn Matthieu DURCHON (PC) 1:1
FRA 45mn Frédéric SOYEZ (PC) 2:1
POL 58mn Marcin STRYKOWSKI (FG) 2:2
Standings: 1) Pakistan 3pts 2) Japan 3pts 3) France and Poland 1 pt 5) Russia 0pt 6) Italy 0pt
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