Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Olympic Hockey - Ladies Group A 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 B here.

Group A
On paper, this always looked the easiest group to qualify from with Netherlands and Great Britain the pre tournament favourites to get through to the semi-finals. As it turned out, however, it wasn't quite as easy as it might have been.

In the last major tournament before this Olympics, the Argentina FIH Champions Trophy, England had finished runners-up to hosts Argentina. They were in the same group as Netherlands, China and Japan and had drawn with Netherlands in the group stages. England are ranked fourth in the world and while they compete under the Great Britain banner in the Olympics, this has made little difference to selection.

Despite being held to a draw by England in Argentina and finishing third in the Champions Trophy, Netherlands are still ranked number 1 in the world. They would have come into this group expecting to emerge victorious. Drawing on their experience in Argentina, Great Britain would still have hoped to beat Netherlands in order to get, hopefully, an easier draw in the semi-finals, but at this level, there is no such thing as an easy game in the latter stages of a tournament.

As it turned out, Netherlands went through the group without a single dropped point. Starting with a 3-0 victory in their first game against Belgium, the Netherlands proceeded to do just enough in their other games to win and collect the points. None of their games seemed particularly easy and apart from that first game the winning margin was never more than a single goal and they failed to keep a clean sheet.

Unlike previous great Netherlands sides, this one seems to lack a charismatic leader and go-to player. Too often they broke down in the D when through on goal and their conversion rate for penalty corners was awful. Defensively, when under real pressure, they were able to scramble the ball away but the fact that they failed to record just a single convincing win suggests that they lack confidence.

Great Britain, by comparison, made qualification hard for themselves. They initially started very strongly against Japan with a 4-0 win but key injuries, not least to the talismanic Kate Walsh (broken jaw), cause significant concern. The impact of Walsh on the team should not be underestimated. Despite having surgery to insert a metal plate, Walsh was back in the tournament a few days later and leading from the front.

Further wins against Korea 5-3 and Belgium 3-0 meant that with two games left, GB were leading the table and barring any disaster, were on course for a semi-final. That disaster, however, soon appeared. In a lacklustre game, GB went down 2-1 against China, throwing the whole semi-final into question. Despite this, they still went into their last game against Netherlands, knowing that a win would leave them topping the group on goal difference. It was not to be but even with a 2-1 loss, GB still managed to qualify for the semi-finals.

But what about the other four nations in this group - China, Korea, Japan and Belgium?

China are not a hockey nation anyone should take lightly. They finished bottom of the last FIH Champions Trophy in Argentia but are ranked fifth in the world based on ability. They comprehensively beat Korea 4-0 and beat GB 2-1 but these were the highlights of their campaign.

A scoreless draw with Belgium and 1-0 losses to both Japan and Netherlands, meant that eventually, they just were not good enough to challenge for a semi-final place. While this tournament may not have turned out as China wanted, they are improving steadily and it is only a matter of time before they find themselves in the semi-finals of a major event at the expense of one or more of the big nations ranked above them.

Korea are ranked eight in the world and got to these Olympics after some hard work and having done well over the last decade. Wins against Belgium 3-1 and Japan 1-0 meant that Korea finshed in a very credible fourth place in Group A. It could, however, have been much better. In their game against Netherlands, they might have lost 3-2 but it could so easily have been a draw or even a win and they were the only team to score 3 goals against GB.

Japan, while ninth in the world, lack the power and skill to qualify for the semi-finals of a major tournament like this. They are a very good side to watch and move the ball quickly and efficiently but to be a top ranked competitor, you also need to score goals. Japan managed just four goals in five games although two of those came against the Netherlands in a game that many thought they might have drawn.

Belgium, sadly, looked completely out of their class in these Olympics and that was a surprise. Before the tournament, I expected them to be able to finish fourth in this group, not last. They have some great club sides and some of their players regularly compete with and against, the best ladies players in Europe. Where they go from here is difficult to say. The skills are there but the fitness levels, tactical awareness and ability of the coaching staff to extract the right performances are lacking.

Semi-finals and beyond
Netherlands will play New Zealand and Great Britain will play Argentina in the semi-finals. Both teams have great chances of progressing and making the final although the Netherlands will be more confident than Great Britain.

That said, Netherlands will need to play with a higher energy level and be much more clinical around the goal than they have been so far in this competition. If they fail to take all the chances that come their way, New Zealand have the players and ability to beat them and cause yet another major upset at these Olympics.

GB has a much tought task. It needs to overcome a team that is capable of winning major tournaments, is ranked second in the world and is the reigning Champions Trophy holders. If Walsh and Cullen are on fire for GB, then they have every chance of winning that match and making the final. What they cannot afford to do, is play like they did against China. That game has to be set aside as a complete aberation and I have no doubt that the GB management will have done their bit to ensure no repeat of that lacklustre performance.

No comments:

Post a Comment