In a day of exciting action, top quality performances and the occasional upset, four teams have booked their ticket to both the 2018 Hockey World Cup and the Hockey World League Finals in Auckland at the end of this year.
China stunned the Hockeyroos when they turned on the style and saw their counter-attacking strategy pay off. The Netherlands continued their serene progress towards the semi-finals with a win over Spain; New Zealand put in a workmanlike performance to defeat Italy and Korea broke the hearts of a stadium full of Belgium fans to take the fourth semi-final place.
9th/10 place Scotland v Malaysia 1-0
Nicola Skrastin was able to celebrate her 100th cap for her country as Scotland (Hero FIH World Ranking: 16) enjoyed a win over Malaysia (WR: 22).
The match saw a strong and structured performance from the higher-ranked team and, despite some tricky skills and speedy movement from the Asian team, this was to be Scotland’s day as they finished their first Hockey World League Semi-Final event in ninth position.
The Malaysian goalkeeper, Farah Yahya, was the first to be called into action as Scotland’s Rebecca Merchant fired a fierce shot goalwards. That was the start of a period of sustained Scottish pressure and Sarah Robertson was able to fire home a few minutes later as she swept the ball into the goal following another well-worked penalty corner routine.
Malaysia fought back and created their own scoring opportunities, with Norsharina Shabuddin and Norfaiezah Saiuti in particular causing some trouble to the Scottish defence as they weaved their way through. Nicola Cochrane was called on to make an acrobatic save to maintain her team’s lead, the tall ‘keeper somehow managing to change direction in mid-air to palm the ball away. With three minutes left Malaysia were reduced to nine players as two players were sent off for poor tackles, and Scotland put the pressure on and kept the ball in the Malaysian half of the pitch for much of the remaining time.
“We have certainly learnt a lot from this tournament,” said Skrastin after the game. “Which will stand us in good stead for the coming months. And we really enjoyed competing against some of the top teams. That opening match against the Netherlands was a great game to play in.”
Speaking to Melanie Kreusch, from the local media team, Kareena Cuthbert said: “We knew Malaysia were fast and tough, but we were so happy to finish the tournament with a win. It has been a very good learning curve for us, we had a few debutantes in the team, so this is invaluable experience. We had a really good defensive structure throughout, we just need to score more goals.”
New Zealand v Italy 2-0
Quick breaks, fast counter-attacks and some fiercely competitive battles on the pitch – the match between New Zealand and Italy was a game that pitted the strong, physical fifth-ranked team against the rapidly-improving and equally tenacious 16th-ranked side.
It was the Black Sticks who prevailed and became the first nation to book their place, not just in the semi-finals of this event but also at the 2018 Hockey World Cup in London in 2018. Samantha Harrison scored a field goal in the sixth minute to give the Black Sticks the lead in the first quarter-final of the FINTRO Hockey World League Semi-Final.
A few minutes later a devastating run by Stacey Michelesen created the next clear-cut scoring opportunity – the captain’s run gave Erin Goad the chance to shoot but Martina Chirico was up to the challenge and pulled off a good save.
Samantha Charlton added New Zealand’s second – another goal from open play after more great build-up play. The long-serving player capitalised on her speed to fire the ball home.
Italy refused to give up and won a series of penalty corners in the third quarter. Sally Rutherford was called on to save twice but the New Zealand runners were also out quickly and bravely to negate the danger.
With five minutes left, Agata Wybierralska nearly halved the deficit with a well-taken penalty conner, which again put Rutherford under some pressure to deal with.
For Italy, this was a performance that showed great energy in the build-up but the next step in development must be to use a strategy to get around the well-disciplined defence that is the domain of higher-ranked teams such as New Zealand.
Italy’s captain Chiara Tiddy said: “We knew this was always going to be a hard game because New Zealand play to a very high tempo. We created a lot of opportunities, especially penalty corners. We are now very excited for the next game because that is very important for our chances to qualify for the World Cup.”
Mark Hager, head coach to New Zealand said he was delighted to have qualified for the World Cup and he was looking forward to the semi-finals. “There are still things to improve on but our defence played well and we created more opportunities than we had in earlier games.”
Quarter-final 2 Australia v China 0-2
A subtle slip right on a penalty corner presented Wu Mengrong with the perfect opportunity to propel China from a fourth-place pool finish into the semi-finals and also into the 2018 World Cup. The second goal came on the counter and was quite stunning in its speed and ferocity. The goal was made by the excellent running of Zhang Jinrong and put away by Liang Meiyu.
The match itself was a classic encounter between the defensive Chinese, whose style of play is to defend strongly and counter with long passes, and the tenacious Australians, whose game plan is to press high and create as many attacking chances as possible.
The closest either side came to breaking the deadlock in the first half was when a break by China found Wang Na waiting on the edge of the Australia circle. Rachael Lynch was quickly out to nullify the attack.
At the other end of the pitch, Georgia Nanscawen was busy in midfield trying to spark an attack, but a major problem with the Australia side in this game was the lack of opportunities to shoot.
The first China goal, when it came in the 32nd minute of the match, was the result of a well-rehearsed and quite unexpected penalty corner routine. The ball came out to the top but rather than taking a first time shot, the ball was slipped to Wu, who was able to place it in the corner, past Lynch’s outstretched foot.
With 10 minutes left on the clock, the Hockeyroos threw all they had at the Chinese defence. Emily Smith came close to equalising when she just failed to connect cleanly with a cross from Kathryn Slattery. The world number four side was made to pay when Liang Meiyu fired past Lynch to double the lead but Australia should have been alert to the danger as just seconds earlier Zhang Jinrong and Liang Meiyu had nearly combined after a virtually identical move.
Full credit must go to the Chinese for a game plan that took the sting out of the Australian attack and played to their own strengths.
“I don’t think we had played our best in the earlier games,” said Zhang Jinrong. “But today, we were focused and concentrated on our own game.”
Captain Cui Qiuxia added: “We are so very, very pleased to have qualified for the World Cup and the Hockey World League Finals.”
A disappointed but composed Jane Claxton said: “That is definitely shattering. We should have scored early but we didn’t. We are a new, young group and we are still learning but it is a case of making the right decisions at the right time.”
Quarter-final 3 Netherlands v Spain 2-0
A composed performance from the Netherlands saw the world’s number one side book their place at the 2018 World Cup, giving them the chance to defend the title they won so convincingly in 2014. The result means the Dutch will be competing at the Hockey World League Final in Auckland at the end of the year.
Spain must now go into the 5-8th place play-offs and look to seal their place at the World Cup by finishing in fifth place.
An early trademark goal from Caia van Maasakker gave the Netherlands the initiative in this quarter-final encounter between two European teams. Spain are an attacking side that does not sit back and just soak up pressure and so the team in red worked hard to get the ball into the Dutch defending half – but they found the number one team on sharp form. For the first quarter, Netherlands enjoyed the majority of possession, mainly in the Spanish-defending quarter of the pitch.
As the half drew on, Netherlands continued to enjoy the majority of the game but they found themselves up against a Spanish team with a heap of resolve and, despite creating scoring opportunities and four penalty corner chances, the teams remained separated by just one goal at half-time.
Speaking at half-time, Spain’s head coach Adrian Lock spoke about the need for his players to keep possession and be a little more clinical. Unfortunately for Lock, the team that took to the field with a higher level of clinical proficiency was the team in orange and a great run by Charlotte Vega forced a foul from the Spanish defence. Van Maasakker made no mistake with the ensuing penalty stroke as she sent Maria Ruiz the wrong way to double her team’s lead.
Spain came back immediately as Berta Bonastre – who was a ball of energy throughout the game – burst into the Dutch circle and drew a reaction save from Anne Veenendaal, The subsequent penalty corner was scuffed and the Spanish were left rueing a chance to halve the deficit.
Van Maasakker declared it “a very good game, with a lot of pressure from both sides.”
“The whole team is on the same page across the pitch. The main goal today was to turn pressure into goal scoring opportunities and we did that.”
Korea v Belgium 1-1 (Korea win 3-2 penalty shootout)
Fast, furious with many, many scoring opportunities for both teams and the first shoot-out of the tournament – this was a match that had everything.
The final quarter-final match to decide who would grab the final Hockey World League Final ticket on offer at this event was frenetic and entertaining. The match went to the team from Asia as they proved the more clinical in the shoot-out with Cheon Eunbi, Cho Yun Kyoung and Cho Eunji all finding the target.
To the disappointment of the large host crowd, Korea took an early lead when Choen Seul Ki – the tournament’s top goal scorer so far – sent a rocket of a shot past Aisling D’Hooghe in the third minute of the game. Belgium fought back hard and created a lot of scoring opportunities in the opening half but were unable to find a route to goal.
The score was levelled just after half-time when Emma Puvrez scored an innovative goal, picking the ball up in mid-air and shooting past Jang Soo Ji in the Korea goal. Three successive penalty corners for Korea severely tested D’Hooghe but the ‘keeper proved herself more than up to the challenge. In a further Korean attack, a crucial tackle by Louise Cavenaile prevented an almost certain goal as Cheon Eunbi had received the ball in lots of space in the circle and was lining up to shoot home.
At the other end of the pitch some great play by Aix Gerniers earned her team a penalty corner which Lien Hillwaert narrowly failed to convert.
With neither side able to break the deadlock, the match went to shoot-out, with Korea prevailing to take one of the five World Cup qualification spots available at this event.
Belgium will be in the 5-8 place play-off, still with an opportunity to qualify in fifth place.
Manon Simons said: “I am very disappointed in the result but the overall game was good. We just lacked scoring. We were also very disappointed to lose the shoot-out. We have worked so hard as a newly-formed squad, so we are sad to finish on this result.”
By contrast, Jang Soo Ji, goalkeeper during the shoot-out said, she was delighted at her team’s increasingly good performances over the course of this tournament. She was also over the moon to have qualified for the World Cup and the Hockey World League Final.
With the four of the event’s five World Cup qualification places filled by the four semi-finalists, there is now considerable interest in the race for fifth place. Italy, Australia, Spain and Belgium will all be focussed on the next match and the chance to play for that all important fifth place on Sunday.
And, depending on the outcomes of the upcoming Continental Championships, the number of World Cup qualifiers from the Hockey World League Semi-Final events could increase ensuring that there is still all to play for here in Brussels.
In Saturday’s semi-finals, Korea play China and the Netherlands take on New Zealand. Like the semi-finals, the 5-8 matches take place on Saturday 1 July, with Spain facing Italy and Belgium against Australia.
Images: Ned Dawson / Planet Hockey