Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Olympic Hockey 2012 - Men's Group A round-up

With Australia and Great Britain now qualified from this group, it's time to look back on how the group matches went. You can find the Group B round-up here.

Group A
At first glance, this was never going to be a group where Australia would have expected to fail. For Great Britain, however, it was less clear. They haven't made an Olympic final since 1988 and there was massive pressure from the crowd and the hockey community to fix this at their home Olympics. Great Britains know Spain are never an easy team to beat and Pakistan came here as an unknown quantity. In the end, the two top ranked teams have gone through to the next stage so how did everyone do.

Australia opened their campaign with a 6-0 thrashing of South Africa. This game wasn't as completely one-sided as the score suggests but Australia were at their imperious best and looking to send a message to everyone in the group. In case that message went unheaded, it was followed by a 5-0 win over Spain. This one was not quite as fluid as the game against South Africe but it was clinical and controlled.

Then it all stalled. Argentina came out, determined not to be overawed and got a 2-2 draw. Australia looked a little flat during this game and seemed unprepared for the way Argentina fought for each ball. It got even worse in the match against Great Britiain. Australia were 3-0 up and looking like they were going to cruise into the semi-finals. What they didn't count on was Great Britain fighting back and being prepared to throw everything they had at Australia in order to get a 3-3 draw. At the end of that game, it could have easily been 4-3 to either side.

In the final game of the group, knowing that a win or a draw would be good enough for the semi-finals, Australia came up against Pakistan. This was not a make-weight match as a loss to Pakistan would have put them through to the semi-finals. Australia were in no mood to take chances. They ripped into a Pakistan side that looked like they were content to sit back and try and win on the break. Sadly, as the game progressed, Pakistan ceased competing and Australia strolled to a 7-0 win and a place in the semi-finals against Germany.

Unlike Australia, Great Britain made hard work of their qualification for the the semi-finals. A 4-1 win over Argentina was a great start but a stuttering 2-2 draw with South Africa left Great Britain with a lot of work to do.

In their next match against the misfiring Pakistan, Great Britain got their campaign back on track with a 4-1 win. The key to this victory was the speed of the Great Britain breaks and the continued pressure they placed on Pakistan who wilted as the game went on.

The draw against South Africa put a lot of pressure on Great Britain ahead of the game against Australia. The game started slowly for Great Britain and Australia were 3-0 ahead midway through the second half. But Jason Lee has built this side to be resilient and it was clear that they were determined not to go out with a wimper. Instead of accepting defeat, they tore into Australia and pulled the match back to 3-3 and in the last minutes, either side could have taken it 4-3.

With Pakistan hot on their heels, Great Britain knew the last match, against Spain, would be tough. It was not only tough but very nervy, although much of the pressure on Great Britain was self inflicted. Earlier in the day Great Britain had seen Pakistan beaten by Australia and knew that a win or draw here would be enough to send them through to face Netherlands. In the end, it was a 1-1 draw and that was enough, much to the relief of the Great Britain supporters and their coaching staff.

Only in the last round of matches did Spain get themselves into third position in this group but will be rueing their failure to beat Great Britain and the points they dropped elsewhere. It started badly for them with the broken arm to Santiago Freixa, although he seemed to shrug it off and carry on playing. That first match against Pakistan was tough for both sides but neither side took their chances to win it.

Against Australia, Spain was outclassed and never looked like getting anything. Although Spain won their next match 3-2 against South Africa, they really didn't look the fluid passing team we've seen over the last decade and in some respects, were lucky not to drop points. The match against Argentina was also difficult even though it was a 3-1 win and at this point Spain were still in with a chance to go to the semi-finals.

Sadly, they were unable to overcome a very nervy Great Britain and make it to the semi-finals. They did leap frog Pakistan in the table but only due to the rout handed to Pakistan by Australia.

Pakistan came here with high hopes and left under a cloud. An opening game against Spain resulted in a 1-1 draw and a good opportunity for the team to get to the speed of the pitch and competition. In beating Argentina 2-0 in the next match, Pakistan were beginning to look the real deal and a serious threat to Great Britain and Australia.

Against Great Britain, however, Pakistan were exposed by fast breaks and contined pressure in the 23m area. Great Britain pressured Pakistan and ran out comfortable winners 4-1. At this point, Pakistan could have been forgiven for settling for third in the group but they didn't. They bounced back with an unconvincing 5-4 win over South Africa which kept them in contention for a semi-final berth after Great Britain fought to a 3-3 draw with Australia.

The final group match game Pakistan hope that they could pull off a shock but that was until the game actually started. They shipped two early goals, but despite making some forays into the Australian end of the pitch, they just couldn't get their shots away. By the end of the first half, Australia were 4-0 ahead and in the second half, as the lead was extended to 5-0, Pakistan stopped competing. By the end of the match, it was a very sorry looking Pakistan who found themselves on the end of a 7-0 rout by a very dominant Australia.

Nobody really expected much of Argentina and South Africa, bar the chance of the odd upset against the more established sides. Sadly for Argentina it started badly with a 4-1 loss to Great Britain followed by a 2-0 loss to Pakistan. They then almost pulled off the shock all the Great Britain supporters were hoping for against Australia but eventually had to settle for a 2-2 draw.

Against Spain they played well but the Spanish class told out and they lost 3-1. All they had left was pride to play for against South Africa and in a match that went from end to end, it all came down to who could actually score. Argentina won this 6-3 although it was only due to some strange goalkeeping by South Africa that made it look easy at the end.

South Africa has come a long way in the last decade. Look around London and other large European cities and you will see players from South Africa in many of the large clubs. In this tournament, however, they were sadly outclassed. The highlight of their competition was a 2-2 draw with Great Britain as they looked to inflict a shock defeat but they just couldn't find a way through for the win.

Semi-finals and beyond
With Australia and Great Britain now heading off to face Germany and Netherlands respectively we have the top four ranked teams in the world in the Olympic finals. In any sport, it is generally rare for the ranking system to work so well and there were scares for Great Britain and Germany as the tournament progressed.

Great Britain look to have a very tough task in taking on Netherlands but if there is one thing that Jason Lee has instilled in his team, it's belief. While it may have been lacking in a nervy last group game against Spain, this is winner takes all hockey with a home crowd. The expectation will be palpable around the stadium and Great Britain need to draw on that energy in the same way other gold medalists, such as Jessica Ennis, have already done.

Australia have no easy task in facing Germany although Germany have misfired so far this tournament. Both sides know what it is like to get to semi-finals in the major competitions and to lift trophies. This is a match that will go all the way to the final whistle. If Australia show the weakness they showed against Great Britain, throwing away a three goal lead, Germany will make them pay dearly.

Whoever wins the semi-finals, we can count on the final four games to deliver fast, skillful and exciting hockey as befits this Olympic tournament.

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