Match Day 59 of the FIH Pro League was a momentous occasion for Spain’s Red Sticks, who finally claimed their first win of the competition by defeating league leaders Australia in an intriguing contest in Madrid on Thursday (13 June).
It was Spain’s first win over the Kookaburras since defeating them 1-0 in the pool phase at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, being enough to put Australia’s qualification for the FIH Pro League Grand Final temporarily on hold.
While Spain have been the great entertainers in the inaugural FIH Pro League and have won all five of the shoot-out competitions that they have been involved in, their 3-2 victory over Australia, thanks to goals from Josep Romeu (2) and Xavi Lleonart, marked their first outright win of the competition.
Australia remain top of the FIH Pro League standings but still have work to do if they are to guarantee that all-important top four finish that earns tickets to this month’s FIH Pro League Grand Final in Amsterdam and the FIH Olympic qualifiers, which take place later this year. To see the current men’s FIH Pro League standings, click here.
Australia (FIH World Ranking: 2) were excellent in the first quarter of their clash with hosts Spain (WR: 9), opening the scoring after just three minutes when Tim Brand dived in to capitalise after a sustained period of pressure. Red Sticks goalkeeper Mario Garin made a fine reaction save to deny a second for the Kookaburras, batting away a fierce backhand strike from Flynn Ogilvie to ensure that the home side went into quarter-time break trailing by just one goal.
The visitors had the better of the early stages of the second period, but Spain – and attacking star Xavi Lleonart in particular – grew in stature as the second quarter progressed and snatched an equaliser from the first penalty corner of the game. Australia goalkeeper Andrew Charter could do little about the goal that beat him in the 28th minute, with Josep Romeu’s ferocious drag-flick from the top of the circle rocketing into the roof of the net to tie the scores at half time.
Shot-stopper Garin made numerous crucial saves in the third quarter before Spain stunned the Kookaburras by moving into a 2-1 lead thanks to the persistence of Xavi Lleonart, who somehow managed to scoop a superb one-handed finish into the Australian goal before the visitors could clear the danger.
Australia cranked up the pressure in the final quarter but Garin continued to excel, forcing Kookaburras coach Colin Batch to replace his goalkeeper with an outfield player in an attempt to overload the Spanish defence. The tactic paid off when a penalty corner effort found a Spanish foot on the goal-line, with Blake Govers stepping up to convert from the spot to make the score 2-2 with just two minutes remaining.
Just when a shoot-out for the bonus point seemed almost inevitable, Spain won a penalty corner in the final minute and it would prove decisive. It was another opportunity for Romeu to show his drag-flicking abilities, but things did not quite go to plan. A poor trap at the top of the Australian circle denied Romeu the chance to fully unleash, being forced into sending a hopeful pass through a crowd of players towards the target. The speculative shot somehow found its way into the net, with a somewhat bizarre winning goal being ratified by video umpire Coen van Bunge after on-field umpire Martin Madden checked to ensure that the shot had been taken from within the circle. Spain’s men will be back in action at Club de Campo on Friday 14 June when they take on New Zealand, with Great Britain men entertaining the Netherlands in front of a sell-out crowd at the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre in London.