The Netherlands took first place at the FINTRO Hockey World League Semi-Finals after a patient but accomplished performance against China. For their part, the team ranked eighth in the world played their part in a spectacle worthy of a final.
The match was tightly contested and a showcase for some of the most skilful players in the game. It was a game where top scorer Caia van Maasakker was able to show off her ability to strike with pinpoint accuracy and China’s captain Cui Qiuxia demonstrated why she was the pick of the experts when it came to Player of the Tournament.
It is also worth noting that this was an event that was also a showcase for a consistently high level of umpiring.
The final between Netherlands and China started nervously with both teams testing each other. The Chinese have improved steadily throughout the tournament, while the Netherlands have played consistently well without ever hitting top form.
The Dutch were the first to find their rhythm with Caia van Maasakker’s shot being well chased down by Ou Zixia. The next penalty corner shot from van Maasakker flew towards the top corner and Li Dongxiao was forced to make a flying leap to save the ball. The Dutch continued to pile on the pressure in the second quarter, with captain Marloes Keetels coming close to breaking the deadlock towards the end of the second quarter with a testing shot.
The second half began in much the same way. The Dutch continued to push and probe, searching for a way through the Chinese defence but, despite a huge disparity in attacking moves, the Netherlands could not find a way through. China’s own attacking moves came largely through quick breaks down either side of the pitch, with Zhang Xiaoxue in particular looking dangerous. Anne Veenendaal in the Netherlands goal was forced to make a desperate save as the ball popped unexpectedly up in front of her after Wang Na took a shot. It was the tournament’s eventual leading goal scorer, van Maasakker who broke the deadlock. Ironically, the penalty corner shot fell to her after a scuffed shot at the top of the circle and the tall defender swept home with precision. Seconds later a fabulous ball across the circle from Kitty van Male almost found Malou Pheninckx in lots of space. The ball just evaded Pheninckx’s stick and ran to safety. Xan de Waard then joined in the action, with a run across the pitch into the China circle. Her subsequent shot flew wide and China were able to regroup.
The match, by this stage, was far from one-way traffic. Although the Netherlands had far more shots on target, China were making their own moves up the field. The innovative play and keen running of the Chinese midfield gave the Netherlands plenty to think about and there is little doubt that China are a team that has medal-winning ambitions. The way they grew as a unit during this tournament is a sign of the potential within the national team. However, this match was all about the winning ways of the Netherlands. Van Maasakker’s second goal was also from a slightly misplaced penalty corner, this time, the shot bounced in off a defender and wrong-footed Li Dongxiao.
Spain v Belgium 1-1 (Spain 4-1 penalty shootout)
This was an open game between two well-matched European rivals. Both teams are in the development stage but equally, both sides have shown throughout the course of the tournament that they are not too far off competing with the top teams. Fast breaks, two competitive defensive units and cohesive tactics have seen both the Red Sticks and the Red Lions pose questions to higher ranked teams.
During this match, things remained tight. The first quarter saw Belgium as possibly the stronger of the two teams, with Maria Ruiz in the Spanish goal being called into action more times than her Belgium counterpart. The second quarter however, belonged to Spain. Some good work by Belen Iglesias down the left-hand side of the pitch started the move. Her cross was deflected skywards for Lucia Jimenez to bat home past Aisling D’Hooghe. Two further penalty corners offered the Spanish side scoring opportunities but D’Hooghe and her defence stood firm.
The second half saw Belgium pushing higher as they sought the all important equaliser. Two penalty corners in the third quarter saw the Belgium’s working hard to restore the balance but Spain were determined to hold on to the lead. Belgium finally broke through with a penalty corner from Louise Versavel. The fierce shot sent the match to shoot-out, Belgium’s third of the tournament. Unfortunately it was not third time lucky and a very clinical Spanish team were convincing winners.
A disappointed Stephanie Vanden Borre said: “Overall our game was better than yesterday. Unfortunately we didn’t capitalise on goal scoring chances. But we played hard and kept our momentum to score. The shootout was another disappointment.”
Spain’s Berta Bonastre said: “Sport can be beautiful, yesterday we lost the shoot-out, today we won. Yesterday I missed, but I am a stubborn person so, when the coach asked me, I said ‘yes’, and I scored. We were maybe a little bit better than Belgium today and, in a game like today, we won on details. i think we are a little bit more experienced than Belgium in tournament situations.”
Italy v Australia 1-3
Australia may not have had the tournament they would have wished for, but the world number four side and Oceania champions made certain they would be present at the 2018 World Cup with a strong display against a talented and progressive Italian team.
Frederica Carta gave Italy the lead in the all-important 5/6th place play-off match against Australia. If the Hockeyroos were expecting a defensive or tentative start from the team ranked 12 places below them, then the Italians clearly hadn’t read the script. Carta’s goal was a well-taken penalty corner that came from some aggressive attacking runs from the team in blue.
Kathryn Slattery scored the equaliser in the second quarter, minutes after she had mis-hit a clear-cut scoring opportunity when she was free with only Martina Chirico to beat. Slattery made no mistake second time round, her goal was a cracker of a shot.
For the Italian team, Lara Oviedo was creating problems for the Australian defence as she proved herself willing to run at players in the defensive circle. Meanwhile, at the other end of the pitch, Laura Barden and the energetic Edwina Bone were creating their own havoc as they weaved their way around the Italian defence.
Madi Ratcliffe’s powerful penalty corner strike was nearly the difference between the two sides in the third quarter but the shot was narrowly wide. Minutes later, the Hockeyroo’s fourth penalty corner was turned away by the excellent Martina Chirico while, her captain, Chiara Tiddy, stepped up and saved the next bullet of a shot from crossing the line. Having weathered this storm, Italy pushed up the pitch and applied pressure of their own, but the relentless pressure from Australia was soon resumed, this time Emily Smith was the player testing Chirico’s reactions.
It took the final quarter for Australia to find a way through the stubborn Italian defence. Georgina Morgan continued to press her claim to be the tournament’s top scorer as she fired home a shot that flew between Chirico and Tiddy. The third goal was a sure indication that sometimes the most direct route is the most effective. The ball fell to Madi Ratcliffe, whose first time shot put the game beyond Italy’s reach and secured her team’s place at the 2018 World Cup in London.
Georgina Morgan, speaking to the local organising committee reporter Melanie Kreusch, said: “The first half was tough, the goal from Italy was a shock. We had made loads of chances but failed to take them.
“We bounced back in the second half. We have loved this tournament – we are rebuilding from after the 2016 Olympics so this is a young team and this has been a great chance to put ourselves against some top opposition. We are upset we didn’t qualify for the Hockey World League Final but this is a good end to our campaign.”
Korea v New Zealand 1-3
The first half was very much one-way traffic with New Zealand in the driving seat but, as has been the case for many teams at this tournament, they were unable to convert circle incursions into goals.
Korea’ s few attacks in the first half of the match were the result of counter-attacks as the midfield attempted to find Cheon Seul Ki or Cheon Eunbi, who revolved as Korea’s lone striker. In the second half, Korea came out with a much more attacking mindset. The change in tempo pushed the Black Sticks back and for the first part of the half, Korea were the team piling on the pressure.
Suddenly the New Zealand players found themselves harried when in possession and needing to chase hard when Korea had the ball as their players joined the attack in numbers. New Zealand were nearly made to pay as the quarter drew to an end. An intercept in front of the Black Sticks circle released Cheon Seul Ki and her rasping pass was tantalisingly close to Cho Hyejin’s stick. A strike by Olivia Merry signalled New Zealand’s determination to take bronze at this event but Jang Soo Ji was up to the challenge and cleared from that shot and the follow-up. In a swift change of end, Cho Hyejin again was just one step from connecting with a cross.
It was all action in the final 10 minutes as the ball travelled from end-to-end. A New Zealand penalty corner was beautifully run down by the Korea defence and then a penalty corner to Korea – their first of the match – was wasted as the slip was mis-struck. The deadlock was finally broken when Brooke Neal got hold of a penalty corner and rifled it home past Jang Soo Ji.
After the game, New Zealand’s Samantha Harrison said: “Today’s game was a mental game, and the physical nature of it made it even more so. We had to keep going until the end of the match.
“This tournament has been a great experience,” she added, “We have been here for a month and some of the girls have been taking exams and that is all pressure for the players to cope with as well. We are a young squad, so these are all things we can learn from.”
The captain of Korea, Kim Jongeun, said: “We always really enjoy coming to Europe because it is a very different style of play and we can learn a lot from it. We will now increase the level of our training between now and the Hockey World League Final.”
Images: Ned Dawson / Planet Hockey / Getty Images