Two tough results have put the Black Sticks Men in a slight predicament as they move into the quarter finals of the World Hockey League Semi Final. Aotearoa went down to Australia 2-1 over the weekend and then suffered a similar defeat at the hands of Spain, losing 4-3 in the final minute. This had Aotearoa finishing 3rd in their pool and they'll be up against Belgium tomorrow night after Belgium finished 2nd in their pool.
Belgium only lost one game and it came via a 3-2 result against Germany who led Pool B. Had Aotearoa been able to beat Spain, they would have lined up against a much weaker opponent in the quarter final stage (Ireland). Ain't no point in wondering what could have been though and the kiwis are well positioned to tackle a strong Belgium side after rather impressive performances, despite the results against Australia and Spain.
Aotearoa were super slick against Australia and there was a clear increase in intensity and execution from the kiwis. With the scores locked at 1-1, George Muir received a yellow card for a slide and while it didn't really look all that bad, apparently officials aren't too fond of players leaving their feet. This left the Black Sticks trying to fight off a rampant Australian side with just 10 men on the field for the last few minutes and they gave up the winner; remember that France scored an equalizer earlier in the tournament when Aotearoa were down to 10 men for the final minutes.
The loss to Spain came after the kiwis had done a great job to peg 3 goals back, taking a 3-2 lead into the final 5 minutes. Aotearoa spent much of the third quarter without a goalie, instead playing with 11 field-players and this worked well for the kiwis as they held possession, patiently waited for an opening and like clockwork, they earned penalty corners upon entering the circle. All three goals came via PC's, which was an encouraging change as the game started with a bunch of penalty corners falling the way of Aotearoa only for none of them to go in, then Spain went down the other end and scored off a PC with ease.
3-2 down, Spain then flipped the situation on the kiwis and set up shop down Aotearoa's end of the field having pulled their goalie - as Aotearoa brought Devon Manchester back on to the field to protect the lead. Aotearoa looked a little sketchy under pressure and with clear intent, Spain peppered the circle and slotted a nice rebound in.
3-3 and Aotearoa again went to 11 field-players to chase a win. Unfortunately, Nick Ross gave up possession on his own 25m line and Spain ran into an empty net to seal the win.
There are a few different angles to such hockey mayhem:
Aotearoa didn't need to win this game as they had already sealed a quarter final spot, but still chased a win hard by pulling Manchester off the field. I viewed this as some funky coaching by Darren Smith and this allowed Aotearoa to enjoy live, high pressure/intensity experience of playing without a goalie.
Moving into knockout hockey, having this experience could be crucial as the kiwis may need to chase a goal or two and this situation is usually reserved for the very last moments of a game, so for Smith to make the switch in the third quarter, 2-0 down was a bit weird. It definitely worked though and with McAleese as the designated 'kicking player' he injected the ball into the circle for Stephen Jenness from a promoted position on the right edge, Jenness won a PC and McAleese then scored a beaut of a deflection.
Aotearoa kept chasing goals and without a goalie, they kept Spain out of their circle and controlled possession. This led to two more goals and there was a level of clarity that impressed me as the kiwis knew exactly what had to be done with the numerical advantage.
That clarity flows into the fact that Aotearoa have been playing great hockey, although there was a slight dip in execution from the Australia game to the Spain game. Australia had most of their team backing up from the Olympics; they had Mark Knowles dominating the middle of the field, Mathew Swann popping up every where, Aaron Zalewski storming through the midfield and generally played at a typically high level.
The Black Sticks hung in there with the Aussies though and provided their own threat, while Spain's ability to absorb defensive pressure and then snap up opportunities makes them a nightmare to play against. Aotearoa weren't overly troubled by Spain's attack in this game, it was just the speed with which Spain turned defence into attack and the precision of their attack in converting circle penetrations to goals that troubled Aotearoa.
With the safety net of a quarter final stage (four of the five pool teams qualified for quarter finals), I reckon these two losses could hold some low key value for Aotearoa. They will know that they competed against two very good teams, almost came away with points and only lost these games thanks to moments of relative madness; a yellow card and a turnover in crazy circumstances.
Aotearoa head into this quarter final against Belgium riding a wave of two tough games of hockey and some confidence gained for strong performances. Here's some specifics to ponder over the next 24 hours:
Devon Manchester isn't quite having the best tournament. He'll be filthy that he let a sizzling shot narrowly miss his glove against Australia and he then went the wrong way off a Spanish drag-flick. Spain scored a crucial goal from the baseline as well, after the ball was deflected by Nick Haig. Manchester moved his left leg slightly away from his near post and the ball magically slid through that gap. Belgium have the top three goal-scorers of this tournament and that trio is led by Tom Boon, who must surely be eyeing up Manchester's perceived weakness, possibly to Manchester's right.
How Manchester responds will be crucial, but the Black Sticks gained valuable experience in defending outside their circle against Spain. Yes this came when the kiwis were playing without a goalie, but with Boon in great form, they won't want to be conceding too many penalty corners and keeping Belgium outside their defensive circle is key to that.
McAleese moved into the midfield for this game and then enjoyed a more prominent role when the goalie was taken off. I like this move from coach Smith and hopefully we'll see McAleese spend more time further up the field against Belgium. There's a solid defensive rotation (Tarrant, Woods, Arun Panchia, Russell, Ross) that doesn't leave much room for McAleese and the veteran has a wide variety of passes that he can throw forward.
The McAleese and Marcus Child combo will be worth the watch given their creative play-making abilities.
Knowles and Hugo Inglis were the best players on the park in the trans-Tasman clash and I'd nominate them as either team's representative on a 'World's Best' selection. That obviously means that Inglis has to influence the contest against Belgium and his work-rate will put him in the best position to do so; look for Inglis to lead a long way back to get the ball and then engage defenders before offloading, moving forward and getting the ball back.
Against Spain we saw Aotearoa enjoy dominant periods of possession thanks to the circumstance but I think they'll be better off against Belgium. Attacking with speed against a scramble Belgium defence, with the kiwis enjoying more space offered by a counter-attack type of situation is likely to work well for the Black Sticks. Inglis, Jenness, Jared Panchia, Sam Lane and Leo Mitai-Wells are all quick enough to enable this, they're also moving well as a group, making space for each other etc.
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