Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Olympic Hockey - Ladies Group B round-up

With the group stage now over and the battle for the medals about to start, it's time to take a look back on the two groups in the Ladies competition and see how things have turned out. You can find Group A here.

Group B
This group was rightly labelled the 'group of death' when it was announced and nothing that happened during the Olympics changed that. It was, without question, the more compelling group to watch with three countries expected to be fighting for the semi-final places. The two favourites, Australia and Germany both failed to make it out of the group and this will raise some eyebrows in the committee rooms of national hockey associations.

Argentina are ranked number two in the world, play a brand of fast but physical hockey but are a team that can sometimes be inconsistent. That inconsistency was shown last year when they were shocked by the USA in the hockey final at the Pan American games. Since that defeat, Argentina have won the Champions Trophy and been on a roll.

A 7-1 thrashing of South Africa signalled Argentina's intent to take no prisoners in winning this group. Unfortunately, two days later, their campaign was derailed when the USA repeated their Pan American Games result by causing the second major shock result of these games, the first being New Zealand beating Australia.

Argentina were then tentative in their next game against a very dangerous New Zealand but managed to run out 2-1 winners and then took on Germany for a 3-1 win. They finished their group campaign with a scoreless draw against Australia. This was a thrilling game with end to end action where Argentina knew that a draw or win would send them through to the semi-finals while a loss would send Australia through and leave Argentina in the 5th place playoff.

New Zealand are the big shock in this group. They finished second through some solid and creditable performances. They are currently ranked world number six and, to the surprise of many, are ahead of their much more famous Australian neighbours who are ranked seventh. The New Zealand campaign got off to a great start when in the first match of the Olympics they beat Australia 1-0 for the first time in an Olympic competition.

A 4-1 win against South Africa followed and although New Zealand then lost to Argentina 2-1, it was a very close game. This left New Zealand needing just a draw against Germany which they comfortably achieved. In fact, it looked for a while, as if they would get the win and top the group but it was not to be.

Australia were probably the side that most people expected to qualify for the semi-finals. Despite having slipped to a world ranking of seven, Australia are a side that everyone expects to deliver in big tournaments and they don't come any bigger than the Olympics. In the opening game, against New Zealand, Australia seemed unprepared for the consistency of their opponents attack and the ease by which they were able to get shots on goal. Yet right up until the final whistle, this game could have gone either way.

In their next games Australia bounced back with a 3-1 win over Germany, scrambled a 1-0 win over the USA who could so easily have won and then seemed to struggle in beating South Africa 1-0. However, they went into the last round of matches needing just a win over Argentina to still qualify for the semi-finals and at the top of the group. It didn't happen and a scoreless draw meant no medal in hockey for Australia.

Germany, along with Netherlands, have dominated European hockey for almost as long as I can remember. Yet at the end of the group stages they found themselves back in fourth place and looking pretty forlorn. Without a doubt, this is not the Germany we are used to seeing and their inability to score goals and dominate their opponents was a surprise.

Their campaign got off to a solid start with a 2-1 win over USA but they were then beaten 3-1 by Australia. In this game, Germany looked to be struggling but there was still time to pull it back together. A good 2-0 win over South Africa seemed to put them back on track but when Argentina beat them 3-1 in the penultimate group match, it was clear that it was all over for Germany.

In their last game against New Zealand, Germany did manage a scoreless draw and could have won. Unfortunately, they would have needed a big win in order to go through as their goal difference would not have allowed them to advance.

That brings us to South Africa and the USA. This was never going to be a group that either could expect to advance from and, in the end, it came as no surprise to see them at the bottom. But this was not about making up the numbers. Both teams had one outstanding win and in most of their other games, made their opponents work hard.

South Africa are ranked twelfth in the world and were determined to prove that they were better than that. Anyone following their performances pre the Olympics would have been expecting them to cause some upsets but it is one thing playing warm-up games and another competing on the big world stage. A 7-1 hammering by Argentina was hardly the best of platforms on which to build a campaign and it only got worse when New Zealand beat them 4-1.

In their defeats to Germany 2-0 and Australia 1-0, South Africa could have caused an upset. They had chances to grab a draw or even a win in both games but were unable to really take them. Their best performance, however, was reserved for a 7-0 demolition of the USA in a game where the USA were as poor as South Africa were dominant. There is a lot of potential in this South African side but they need a little more belief and experience on the international stage in order to achieve it.

The USA looked like they could be the dark horses of this group. Although they lost their first game 2-1 to Germany, they were not out muscled or, for periods, outmatched. They have brought a very aggressive style of play to hockey and provided it is tempered with skills and ability, is one that will cause many teams to take them seriously.

That aggression almost boiled over in their second game against Argentina. Having beaten them last year in the Pan American Games, the USA knew they had an opportunity and they wasted no time in taking it. They bumped Argentina off the ball, got in their faces, upset their rhythm and won the match. It was probably the biggest shock result of the group stages as everyone, bar the USA, expected Argentina to just cruise through.

After that, however, it all fell apart. They could have taken points off of Australia and even New Zealand but having fallen behind in both games, they lacked consistency and at time composure on the ball. That cost them badly. Yet when they went into their last game against South Africa, they were not bottom of the table and held a considerable goal difference over their opponents. Unfortunately, this was the game where the USA decided to collapse completely. South Africa monstered them, scoring 7 unanswered goals in as one sided a game as I've seen at international level.

Despite the money and effort that the USA has been putting into field hockey over the last decade, there is still a long way to go if they are to be considered a serious challenger for any major international honour outside of the Pan American Games.

Semi-finals and beyond
While they have topped the group, Argentina look vulnerable. Aymer is the world's best ladies player at the moment but she has failed to be player of the match in most of Argentina's games. The team and coaching staff will be hoping that now they are into the semi-finals, they can concentrate on unleashing their full range of skills which will be needed if they are to fight off Great Britain who will be looking to avenge their Champions Trophy loss.

New Zealand go into the semi-finals on a serious high but know that the Netherlands are a team that will take some beating. If they control the ball with the same degree of efficiency that gave them the win over Australia, they could cause a serious upset against Netherlands who have been far from their imperious best so far.

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