The Black Sticks Men haven't got their International Festival of Hockey in Melbourne off to the best start, drawing with Malaysia 1-1 before they went down to Australia 3-1 last night. Without a win from their first two games, the Black Sticks face India tomorrow night and will need a win and for something crazy to happen in the game between Australia and Malaysia, for them to make the final.
Jared Panchia got the kiwis level in the last few minutes against Malaysia, while Kane Russell scored the goal against Australia in what has been a fairly frustrating first two days of the tournament. In the game against Malaysia, the Black Sticks were unable to make the most of their opportunities to hammer home their advantage and this was in great contrast to what the Aussies did to the kiwis the following night.
Australia were pretty savage in taking their opportunities, all of which couldn't have been avoided to some degree as the kiwi defenders didn't quite show the same desire as the Australian strikers. Much of Australia's dominance over the kiwis though came in the midfield, where the likes of Aran Zalewski and Flynn Ogilvie were freakish in their ability to get around the ball and to then always do something positive with it.
The Australians put the kiwis under all sorts of pressure when the kiwis were trying to get out of their own end, for for much of this game it felt as though the Black Sticks couldn't get the ball over halfway. Defenders were dribbling out of defence and hitting skeptical passes, especially on the left where Harry Miskimmin and Cory Bennett had a tough night.
Ogilvie and Zalewski are fairly typical Aussie hockey players in that they have great stamina, all the skills and aren't exactly small blokes either. In that sense, the kiwis were a bit over-matched in the middle of the park and while the likes of James Coughlin, Rob Creffier and Issac Ross were industrious, they couldn't quite match what was a classy display from the Aussies.
There were signs of how dangerous the Black Sticks could be, if they are able to settle into their passing patterns out of defence. The striking group has a nice blend of hustle, chemistry and individual flair with Jared Panchia, Stephen Jenness, Hugo Inglis, Kim Kingstone and Martin Atkinson combining nicely with limited opportunities.
India beat Malaysia 4-2 and went down to Australia 3-2, which suggests that the Black Sticks will start as underdogs. While they conceded 3 goals against Australia, all of these came from lapses in concentration and the kiwis defended strongly otherwise. The organisation of the Black Sticks' defence and their ability to give up outside channels, while not allowing easy passage through the middle third could see them frustrate the Indians.
Against Australia, problems arose after the Black Sticks had defended well and then turned the ball over as they looked to go forward. If they can string some passes together while moving their way down the pitch, don't be surprised to see them put a few goals on India.