Even though Aotearoa's Black Sticks Men rolled out their best performance of the pool stage at the Men's World Cup in the 2-2 draw with Spain, they had to come back from 2-0 down in the 4th quarter and then watch as France upset Argentina 5-3 to snatch 2nd place in pool A. The kiwis fought valiantly, played their best hockey thus far and then see their hard work almost undone by a crazy French team.
Had the kiwis not bounced back in the 4th quarter, France's win would have seen Spain finish 3rd and Aotearoa 4th. Thanks to their perseverance and faith in their efforts, Aotearoa finished 3rd and will now face England who finished 2nd in pool B; early Tuesday morning kiwi time.
The Black Sticks started strong against Spain and in the 1st quarter it was crystal clear that they had built on performances vs France and Argentina. Better ball movement, crisp short passing and although Stephen Jenness wouldn't be happy that he couldn't convert his chances up front, I reckon that the number of chances/shot Jenness gets is a sign of the Black Sticks playing well.
Jenness had the most circle entries of the Black Sticks with 3, but there's no FIH stat of total shots and they only have shots on target. Jenness had 1 shot on target and fired off more shots that missed the target; if Jenness is getting the ball in or around the circle, there's always a sniff of a goal but more importantly, it's because of what's happened in the build up to Jenness receiving the pill.
Both of Spain's goals were in the first half and while these are now annoying little trends popping up in the Black Sticks play, the Spanish goals came from Black Sticks errors. We don't want these errors to take place, that's for sure, yet it low key points to otherwise sound defence headlined by goalie Richard Joyce who is having a breakout tournament.
One of the goals vs Argentina came from a crash ball into the circle and some poor marking from Dane Lett. Maybe it's Lett's fault again here, or maybe it's Blair Tarrant; how a Spain striker is free in the circle with Lett and Tarrant in close proximity is an issue...
Then, if we cast our mind back to another goal vs Argentina when Tarrant was tackled trying to exit the circle. Again, Tarrant is caught with the ball in the circle, in control of the ball but out of control at the same time as he's jinked it ahead of him in a busy little area:
Not identical to the goals vs Argentina, but very similar and while two games isn't quite enough for a trend, here's hoping we don't see such lapses in concentration vs England.
What was awesome though, was the persistence to get the result. Aotearoa were able to move the ball freely and with Arun Panchia again playing in deep midfield role, it felt as though there was more control to the Black Sticks play. This has been a subtle shift, from coach Darren Smith and it aligns with Hayden Phillips playing more minutes as a striker (plays midfield as well).
Phillips scored the first goal of the comeback, via slick movement high in the circle to wiggle free of his defender and catch a long ball from halfway. This was a screamer of a goal to spark the comeback, putting the ball into the roof from the top of the circle; in keeping with the standard of goals throughout the World Cup.
Kane Russell then put a drag-flick low into the bottom left to make it 2-2 and the comeback was complete. Both goals came in the 4th quarter and showcased the Black Sticks' ability to stick around, trusting their craft to get a result.
England drew with China 2-2, lost to Australia 3-0 and then defeated Ireland 4-2. Such is the nature of international hockey, that no one knows whether England or Aotearoa (or any team) is going to show up firing on all cylinders and while England finished 2nd in their pool, it's a stretch to say one team is a favourite over the other.
One thing to watch out for from a kiwi perspective is the balance of player rotations. Staggering the minutes and usage of the Panchia brothers, Jenness, Hugo Inglis, Marcus Child, George Muir and Nic Woods is crucial as the depth in the Black Sticks squad isn't quite as strong as other nations. The likes of Aidan Sarikaya and Nick Ross do a solid job, even Phillips when he's working through the midfield, do a solid job although they are prone to errors in the middle of the park and can be targeted.
Coach Smith will have a death line up, for when the game is on the line and as he has done in pool-play, Smith will ensure that there's couple of the top-tier players on the field at all times. This is a niggly task as you want your best combinations, while giving guys a break and also ensuring that every rotation is capable of creating chances.
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Peace and love 27.