Season four of men's FIH Pro League couldn't have asked for a better opener than the one between India and New Zealand at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar on Friday.
In a wildly entertaining match, India produced a sensational fightback to go from 1-3 down to win 4-3. In the final quarter, with India down to 10 men and the score 2-3, Mandeep Singh scored two goals in the last ten minutes to secure a narrow, yet thrilling victory.
Here's a play-by-play of how India lost the plot and rewrote it in the final minutes:
1-0 in the first quarter - a different India
India, especially under Reid, have made a habit of starting fast, dropping their intensity as the match progresses and then upping the ante in the final quarter. But there was a slight deviation from the set pattern on Friday.
No doubt it was a good first quarter, not just because of the scoreline as India was leading 1-0. It was impressive because of their defence. It was a slightly scrappy start but New Zealand picked up the pace and kept threatening from the wings. India, to their credit, didn't lose their shape and the players came up with solid tackles.
A good example of this was when Shamsher Singh lost Simon Child on the right but made a desperate attempt and produced a crucial stick tackle before the ball was passed to the centre of the semicircle. Similarly, Manpreet Singh lost the ball in the midfield after coming under intense pressing from three New Zealand players, but ran hard and won the ball back, almost creating a chance for India with his subsequent pass.
India defended well and then took the lead in the 13th minute. Nilakanta Sharma took a free hit just outside the circle quickly and passed it to unmarked Mandeep Mor on the right, who came up with a thumping finish to beat New Zealand goalkeeper Dominic Dixon at the near post.
1-3 in the third quarter - New Zealand are back
Reid, during the half-time break, said - "(In the first quarter) we controlled the ball which we sort of tried to do. In the second quarter, we let them get into the match, our basics dropped off. We need to pick them back up again and try (better) marking." He was quite accurate in his assessment.
New Zealand were back into the game after Sam Lane converted a penalty stroke in the second quarter. The penalty stroke was a result of New Zealand's first penalty corner of the match. Surender Kumar couldn't do much as his foot blocked Lane's dragflick and the umpire had no hesitation in giving the stroke. The equaliser was a big boost to New Zealand's confidence as they went on the offensive.
New Zealand then took the lead in the 34th minute thanks to Jake Smith. It was a lovely bit of play on the right. Three short passes to penetrate the circle and Smith got the better off PR Sreejesh as the ball deflected into the goal.
A minute later, New Zealand made it 3-1 from Lane's dragflick. A sloppy piece of defending from Surender resulted in a penalty corner. It was a powerful hit from Lane which was straight and a bit low. Sreejesh tried to close his legs but failed to get the block. On another day, Sreejesh could've saved both the goals easily.
4-3 in the final quarter - 2 Mandeeps turn it around
A big reason why Mandeep Singh is so crucial to India is his ability to seize the moment, becoming a textbook clutch player. India desperately sought a turnaround and needed to score before the end of the third quarter. Mandeep's clever movement to enter the circle made a mess of New Zealand's defence and he earned a penalty stroke. The reliable Harmanpreet made no mistake in converting his chance to make it 2-3.
But just as hope started to build, India lost Sumit to a ten-minute yellow card suspension after his reckless play. This was Sumit's second card offence, he was earlier shown a green card for deliberately knocking the ball out. Still, India were just a goal behind.
Unlike his goalkeeping partner Sreejesh, Krishna Pathak was having a good day. New Zealand won a slew of penalty corners in the final quarter but Pathak was composed and unwavering.
With ten minutes to go, Shamsher played a delightful ball to Mandeep Mor inside the box. Mor flicked it into the goal as Mandeep Singh got a faint deflection to beat the goalkeeper. Much to the crowd's delight, India made it 3-3 and Mandeep celebrated the goal with a cheeky rock-paper-scissors game with Hardik Singh.
Five minutes later, India's trademark pressing was on display when Nilakanta won the ball in the midfield and gave it to Mandeep who made space for himself inside the circle by going to his right and smashed it to the far corner of the goal. 4-3, so close to victory.
Even in the last minute, New Zealand got a slew of penalty corners but India survived to script a memorable win.
Next up for them is Spain on Sunday and this opener has given Reid and co. much to cheer and more to work on.
Matches will take place at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar and will begin at 7.10 PM IST and will be shown live on Star Sports and Disney+ Hotstar.