It was goals galore on Day Three of the FINTRO Hockey World League Semi-Finals in Brussels as the host nation hit nine against Malaysia and Netherlands followed suit with a 9-0 win over Korea.
Fewer goals but equal entertainment was on hand for the opening and closing matches of the day as Oceania giants New Zealand beat Australia 2-0 in an uncompromising match and the final match – Italy against Scotland – ended 2-1 to the Italians and was high on drama and passion.
So much is at stake for these teams: for those that finish in the top five, an automatic qualification for the 2018 World Cup in London awaits, and, with the continental qualifiers still to be played, more places could become available, making it imperative that teams finish as high in the tournament as possible.
There is also the matter of qualifying for the 2017 Hockey World League Finals, to be played in New Zealand later this year. The top four teams in Brussels will qualify for the eight nation event, although there is a small caveat to this. If New Zealand, the host nation of the Final, do not finish in the top four then only the top three teams in Brussels will qualify. They will be joined by the top four finishers from the Semi-Final competition in Johannesburg, South Africa, plus the highest ranked fourth place finisher from the two Semi-Final events.
New Zealand v Australia 2-0
This was always going to be a tight match between these Oceanic rivals as they battled to gain supremacy in Pool B. Coming into the game, Australia (World Ranking: 4), had won both their previous matches – 3-0 v Malaysia and 1-0 v Belgium – while New Zealand had emerged 1-0 victors after a close game against Spain.
The Black Sticks struck in the first quarter, Brooke Neal cracking home a penalty corner in the 15th minute, but this was the only break through as these two teams defended with tenacity and any potential attack was dealt with by two uncompromising defensive units.
Having taken the lead, New Zealand's Black Sticks looked to have a slight edge in the second half. The excellent Stacey Michelesen and Liz Thompson dominated the midfield and Ella Gunson, in particular, was calm under pressure in defence. For the Hockeyroos, there was a lot of energy on the pitch and Kat Slattery, in particular, ran tirelessly on the forward line but this was a day when experience won out.
New Zealand nearly stole a second goal when Kirsten-Leigh Pearce made an intercept in front of the Australian goal but Rachael Lynch was alert to the danger and cleared well. However, a few minutes later the Black Sticks won their sixth penalty corner and Brooke Neal netted her second goal of the game.
After the game, Australia's Kathryn Slattery said: "We are building. There is a new coaching staff, new players, we are a young team so it has been challenging but this is the start of an exciting time for Australia hockey. Today we didn't create enough scoring opportunities and, combined with a few errors, that cost us."
Two-goal hero Brooke Neal said: "Obviously I am happy to have scored but that is not the focus, I am very happy about the team and how we won. This was a very tough game against our close rivals. We knew we had to keep pushing because if we held back and defended, then Australia would have come back with more energy. So we kept attacking."
Malaysia v Belgium 0-9
The home supporters were in for a treat as the host nation Belgium hit top gear against Malaysia in their second Pool B match.
The Red Panthers were 1-0 up after two minutes as Anne-Sophie Weyns slipped the ball past Farah Yahya in the Malaysia goal and just five minutes later Aline Fobe made it 2-0 as she shot home from a penalty corner. The third goal saw a belter of a shot from captain Anouk Raes, which was given the subtlest of touches by Jill Boon to help it into the goal. Boon had provided the initial defence-splitting pass, so this was just rewards for her efforts.
Malaysia showed just how they were adapting to the pace of this Hockey World League Semi-Final event as they began to turn pressure onto the Belgium defence. Nurul Mansur fired a screamer of a shot across Aisling D'hooghe's goal after some great build-up by the Tigresses' midfield. Stephanie Vanden Borre had the chance to make it 4-0 when Belgium won a penalty stroke but the player scuffed her shot and Yahya made an easy save. On the stroke of half-time, Malaysia worked a good penalty corner routine that caused panic among D'Hooghe and her defence but the ball, fired in by Mansur, was scrambled off the line by Fobe as it span out of the 'keeper's range.
Belgium got the second half underway in equally fiery fashion. Alix Gerniers did all the work to win a penalty stroke but this time Vanden Borre was emphatic as she fired it into the top of the net. This was followed by a second for Boon as she converted a third penalty stroke. Malaysia's woes increased when Vanden Borre scored her second penalty stroke to bring the score to six. The stroke was the result of some clumsy Malaysian tackling as the Belgium forwards ran amok in the circle.
Raes made it seven for the Red Panthers when she struck a sweet shot into the goal and Emma Puvrez joined in the goal-fest a few minutes later as she swept the ball into the goal after a fluid passing movement from her teammates. Malaysia were reduced to 10 players for the last five minutes of the game and Belgium took advantage, pressing high up the field. With just two minutes left, Raes scored her second goal, yet another rasping shot and Belgium closed their account on 9-0.
Talking to Eliott Dautrebande of the local organising committee after the game, Fobe said: "Our tactics for the game were to be patient. We know that when we score one goal, we tend to go on to score more. We were happy to score nine goals as it is a real confidence booster. It means we can go into the matches against New Zealand and Spain in a very positive mood."
Highlighting the team spirit within the Belgium team, Fobe added: "After Stephanie missed the first penalty stroke, as soon as we won a second stroke, the whole team wanted her to take the second because we knew she could score and she needed to know we believed in her."
Korea v Netherlands 0-9
The Netherlands reinforced their position at the top of Pool A with a tremendous display of attacking skills as they put nine goals past Korea.
The first quarter was relatively quiet. Kitty van Male opened the scoring with a well-taken field goal in the fourth minute but then the Korea defence settled and closed off routes to goal. In the second quarter, a spell of pressure by the Oranje saw four more goals scored in a seven minute spell of pressure. First, Caia van Maasakker scored a trademark powerful penalty corner; Laurien Leurink made it three from open play; Van Male scored her second – a neatly taken goal after some good build-up; and Xan de Waard smashed the ball home from the edge of the circle after the Korea 'keeper, Jang Soo Ji had made an initial save.
The sixth goal was sublime as the ball was moved effortlessly through the field and Frederique Matla was able to slot it home over the diving body of Jang Soo Ji.
The Korea team never stopped working to get back on terms in this game and, at times, their discipline halted the Dutch dominance, but this was the day that Alyson Annan's team found top gear and the result will have sent warning signs to their next two pool opponents, China and Italy.
Goal number seven came from a reverse stick strike by Margot van Geffen. The defender, who had terrorised the Korea defence with her surging runs up the pitch, picked up the ball on the run and her resulting shot whistled into the Korea goal.
The final five minutes saw Netherlands add two more goals. First van Maasakker scored her second and then Charlotte Vega slammed home a cheeky mid-air shot that was as innovative as it was spectacular.
"We have a lot of new players so we have been working hard on building our team," said Margot van Geffen. "For me, this has meant a move into midfield [from defence] because we have a lot of very talented new defenders. They are very young but very good and today we really clicked."
Scotland v Italy 1-2
With Scotland registering a loss and a draw and Italy enjoying two drawn matches, both sides were looking for their first win of the tournament. In the world rankings things couldn't be closer, with Italy ranked at 16 and Scotland at 17, so this match had all the makings of being a humdinger of an encounter.
Italy got off to a dream start as they moved into a first quarter 2-0 lead in the final Pool A match of the day. Agata Wybieralska struck first – a beautifully taken penalty corner strike – and just five minutes later Jasbeer Singh made the most of some indecisive defending to double Italy's score.
Scotland worked hard to get back on terms in the game and the match became far more even as the half progressed, with Scotland working hard to nullify the Italian attack. Scotland were rewarded for their efforts when Kate Holmes emphatically smashed the ball into the goal after it had rebounded around the circle. This spurred the teams on to an even higher intensity of play and scoring opportunities began to open up for both teams.
Italy were reduced to 10 players in the third quarter and Scotland continued to press all over the pitch to make that player advantage count. Coach Gordon Shepherd removed his keeper with five minutes left on the clock in an attempt to gain an on-field advantage and it was game on for an exciting final few minutes.
The gamble failed in its ambition as Scotland were unable to penetrate the Italian defence and were left rueing missed chances. The results means that in their final pool match on Sunday 25 June, Scotland and Korea will be battling for the all important fourth place in Pool A.
Italy's captain Chiara Tiddy said: "We scored very early in the beginning of the match, which was good but we knew they would come out very strongly against us. We stayed together and we are very happy with this win."
An emotional Kate Holmes said: "We gave everything and put pressure on Italy for three quarters of the match. The first quarter was obviously disappointing. We have another chance [against Korea] so we will take the positives from this."