MELBOURNE (TIP): India grimly hung on to an early lead to prevail 1-0 over Belgium to advance to the semifinals of the Champions Trophy at the State Hockey Centre on Thursday. The goal that settled the fate of the quarterfinal contest came in the 13th minute of the first shot India had at the rival goal. Nitin Thimmaiah capitalised on a rebound to send a firm shot into the right corner of the goal.
The rebound had come to Thimmaiah on top of the circle following Gurmail Singh’s try off a cross from Birendra Lakra. India had very few chances thereafter and were forced to fall back to defend stoutly as Belgians asserted strength in the midfield. Belgium forced six penalty corners against India’s one. It was because of a fine display by defenders V R Raghunath and Rupinder Pal Singh, beside goalkeeper T R Potnuri, that India managed to maintain their lead. Belgium had beaten India in their last two encounters – in the final of the Champions Challenge last year and in the preliminary league of the Olympic Games in London.
India are now in the hunt for their first medal since their lone Champions Trophy bronze in 1982. This will also be India’s highest finish since 2004 when they had lost the bronze medal match to end fourth. In the semifinals, India will take on the winner of the other quarterfinal match between four-time defending champions Australia and England. In the last three minutes of the first half, Belgian strikers had chance but they committed fouls just before putting the ball in the net. India, hence, retained the lead at the interval. Just before the hooter, Felix Denayer deflected a set-piece attempt into the goal, but the umpire had blown for a foul in the process of switching the ball toward him.
That was the last time the ball went past Indian goalkeeper Potnuri, whose composed defence allowed India to stand their ground later for two minutes in the match when they were reduced to nine players. Gurwinder Singh Chandi was off with a yellow card for raising his stick in a reactionary manner, while captain Sardar Singh was penalised for the defenders surrounding an umpire during a video referral in the 64th minute. The Indian defence managed to keep the lead intact, although they came under intense pressure when all the rival players were in the Indian territory.