Bhubaneshwar: The Indian men’s hockey team inched closer to sealing their berth in the 2020 Tokyo Games after they beat Russia 4-2 in the first leg of their Olympic qualifiers at the Kalinga stadium here on Saturday. The second and final leg will be held on Saturday.
The goal difference could have been higher had it not been for three spectacular saves made by Russian goalkeeper Marat Gafarov in the dying minutes of the match. Gafarov also saved a few penalty corners awarded to the hosts.
India were the outright favourites against 22nd ranked Russia before the match started. But complacency was the buzzword going around the Indian camp ahead of the clash, although coach Graham Reid had said that it was more about focussing on the basics. In the previous match between the two sides, India had beaten Russia 10-0.
India took an early lead thanks to a penalty stroke from Harmanpreet Singh in the fifth minute. Fans at the Kalinga stadium would have started to expect another goal feast at that point but the Russians pegged the hosts back with some well-constructed moves on the other side of the pitch.
Russia forced a few good saves from P.R. Sreejesh before their enterprise finally bore fruit in the 17th minute. Rupinder Singh was caught napping by an overhead pass which was calmly slotted into the goal by Andrey Kuraev.
India were struggling to find their rhythm until then and the goal seemed to give them some much-needed impetus as Mandeep Singh put India in the lead again with six minutes to go in the first half.
India had only one more shot than Russia in the first half and made 10 circle penetrations as opposed to their opponents’ six.
India came out with a more fluid approach in the second half and goals from S.V. Sunil (48th minute) and Mandeep Singh (53rd minute) made the scoreline look like what was expected before the match. However, the Russians did not take their foot off the pedal.
Semen Matkovskiy managed to convert one of the seven shots the away side managed in the second half to reduce the deficit in the final minute of the match.
Gafarov then did his bit to ensure that the second leg does not become a formality, making three fine saves to check India from swelling the lead.