India 1-0 Australia
The epic quarterfinal between the Indian women's hockey team and Australia at the Tokyo Olympics is our pick for match of the year.
2021 did give us plenty of stellar matches, but there shouldn't be much debate about the winner. Even if this game didn't result in a medal, in the larger scheme of things, a medal was not needed to validate the team's sensational achievement.
What came before?
Australia had history and form on their side. India were playing in only their third Olympics, and qualified for the quarterfinal for the first time, while Australia were three-time gold medallists.
Australia, seeded second, were in sublime form, winning all five of their group games, smashing 13 goals in the process and conceding just once. Meanwhile, India scored seven goals in five games and conceded 14. It would take a near perfect performance from India to beat their opponents.
A perfect defensive masterclass
"It's hot, humid, and oh so intense in Tokyo right now. India continue to defend their D with supreme discipline," wrote ESPN's Anirudh Menon in the live blog chronicling the Olympic action on August 2nd, 2021.
Supreme discipline was the fulcrum around which India managed to pull off a sensational win. Head coach Sjoerd Marijne knew he had to frustrate the Aussies by not allowing them to dictate the game and the players followed that plan to a tee. Australia pushed hard to break the defence, but the Indian players neither lost their shape nor their concentration, and the resistance increased the frustration of their opponents as the match progressed.
AM: "India are barely getting a touch of the ball here, but they are defending their D oh so well. Six minutes to go in the third quarter and it is Australia that are becoming more and more frustrated."
It's not like the players only concentrated on defending - Australia shaded ball possession with only 51%. However, every time they went on the attack - 17 circle penetrations and 14 shots in total - India managed to thwart the chances. India's goalkeeper Savita Punia put in a heroic display, saving all nine shots that came her way. With less than three minutes remaining, Australia earned a second penalty corner on the trot. A big moment in the game, Australia opted for a variation, the shot came from the left, it was on target, Savita blocked the angle and saved the hit with her leg. A few seconds later, the English broadcast commentator said, "Savita has to be the best player on the park."
AM: "Savita saves it yet again. How amazing has she been today? Oh! It's another PC! 2:48 left on the clock... a foot in there from Monika! AND OH MY DAYS. The ball does everything in the D but go in, it was another clever variation from Australia -- they worked it out to Kershaw who was so free, but the Indians pounce on her and Savita makes an incredible save."
There were plenty of defensive heroics on show, but it would have been for naught had Gurjit Kaur not scored in the 22nd minute, converting a penalty corner. India were really poor throughout their campaign when it came to converting their penalty corners. Before the game, India converted just four out of 33 attempts, and all four goals came through variations. Gurjit, who was not at her best in the previous matches, scored in her first attempt against Australia. She was under immense pressure to deliver, and she knew she couldn't afford to miss the limited chances she received against a top side.
AM: "Oh brilliant! Gurjit Kaur dragflicks it through a bunch of legs and sticks and into the goal! Oh wow! Australia -- who conceded all of zero goals in their last four group matches -- are stunned."
It was not a perfect dragflick, but the ball somehow evaded the defenders and the goalkeeper. The players celebrated with the goalscorer, her face revealing the joy and relief she felt at that point.
A win for the most deserving bunch
The post-match scenes revealed how much the victory meant to the players and the coaches. And to see them happy was a sight to behold.
AM: "A miss trap from Kershaw and India have the ball with THIRTY SECONDS to go... they dribble forward beautifully and Navneet keeps it in the corner. TEN SECONDS TO GO... AND THEY HAVE DONE IT!!!"
"THUD! goes Goliath! Australia, pre-tournament favourites and sensationally in-form Australia, have been knocked out by India! David wins, the hockey stick replacing the sling."
Each member of the squad had to overcome numerous obstacles on and off the pitch. Marijne too had to navigate his way through troubled waters. He was appointed as the head coach of the women's team before taking charge of the men's side, and later sent back to coach the women again. COVID-19 made a big dent in their preparations.
'An absolutely astonishing result'
- ESPN India (@ESPNIndia) August 2, 2021
It could've gone all wrong, but they didn't let it, and instead gifted themselves and the fans a wonderful moment to cherish.
Truly, a match for the ages.