The Indian men's hockey team mounted a fightback for the ages to beat Germany 5-4 in the bronze medal match at the Tokyo Olympics on Thursday, for their first hockey medal at the Games since 1980, when they won the last of their eight Olympic gold medals. Following the medals of Mirabai Chanu, PV Sindhu, Lovlina Borgohain and an assured medal for wrestler Ravi Kumar Dahiya, this will be India's fifth medal at the Tokyo Games.
In all, it's India's third bronze and 12th medal at the Games, pulling them ahead of Germany as the country with the most medals in men's hockey. Australia and Belgium will fight it out for gold later on Thursday.
India kept their calm after defensive errors had them trailing Germany 3-1 at one stage in the first half. Simranjeet Singh, restored to the squad in place of Lalit Upadhyay, scored two goals, while Hardik Singh, Harmanpreet Singh and Rupinder Pal Singh scored one apiece.
Germany were the quicker team off the blocks, making their intent clear with captain Florian Fuchs egging the team on to make one final push in the team huddle ahead of pushback. Their intensity found instant reward, as Timur Oruz found a stray ball, not cleared by a combination of Surender Kumar and Shamsher Singh right ahead of Sreejesh, and put Germany ahead in the second minute.
India responded well, earning their first penalty corner (PC) two minutes later, but Rupinder Pal Singh had his drag flick closed down by the first rusher. India were able to maintain the single-goal deficit thanks to Sreejesh in the first quarter, though, as he closed down angles to ensure Niklas Wellen and Mats Grambusch didn't get clean shots on goal. India survived a barrage of PCs, four in succession, right at the end of the first quarter to keep the score at 1-0.
India found their equaliser two minutes into the second quarter, with Simranjeet halting a pass down the middle at the top of the circle, turning and shooting a rasping reverse hit past goalkeeper Alexander Stadler. With six minutes to go for half-time, the game exploded to life, helped initially by some defensive lapses from India.
First, Wellen was allowed to get across to a pass from Christopher Ruhr and reverse slap the ball past Sreejesh. In the 27th minute, Surender failed to clear first time, was pressured by two German attackers bearing down on him, and the resultant pass was tucked into goal by Benedikt Furk. Seconds later, India earned their second PC, and Harmanpreet's hard flick was saved by Stadler, but Hardik quickly went from the injection spot to slot the ball home. A minute later, India earned yet another PC, and this time Harmanpreet drilled it low to the left of Stadler.
With the match poised evenly at half-time, the early initiative was always going to be critical going into a third quarter, especially with the heat and humidity at the Oi Stadium during the morning matches. Mandeep Singh got a nudge in the back from Lukas Windfeder, and the penalty stroke that resulted wasn't just converted by Rupinder, but a protest in vain from Germany also led them to lose their referral. India's domination in that phase was underpinned further in the 34th minute, when Gurjant Singh swept down the right and fed a delightful short pass back across the goal, with Simranjeet on hand for a tip-in.
India could have swelled the lead even further from 5-3, but a couple of failed halts cost them a chance at converting one of three PCs won in succession. Meanwhile, Germany's poor conversion of PCs also continued at the other end, swelling to seven inside the third quarter.
Those failures were set right three minutes into the final quarter -- India made the mistake of dropping deep in defence and ended up conceding a foot inside the circle -- as Windfeder sent a low drag flick into goal before Sreejesh could sort his legs out. With Hauke conceding a yellow card, India had a golden opportunity in the 51st minute, but Mandeep failed to beat Stadler in a one-on-one situation. Three minutes on, Sreejesh was penalised for closing down Ruhr when he was poised to receive an aerial pass inside the circle, but the Indian keeper denied Windfeder this time.
Germany took their keeper off with less than five minutes on the clock, and even won a PC with three minutes to go, but India stood firm as the Germans attempted a variation. With six seconds on the clock, they found a foot inside the circle and Windfeder's drag flick was parried away by Sreejesh, who flung his glove high in celebration, knowing that time had run out on Germany.
The Indian women will play for bronze on Friday morning against Great Britain, giving them the opportunity to be the only nation with medals in both men's and women's hockey at these Games.
(With inputs from PTI)