Teamwork, composure help India halt Belgian juggernaut

Facing England or Argentina in semis won't be a problem for India - Subbaiah (2:17)

Debayan Sen talks to former India International AB Subbaiah on India's win against Belgium in the quarterfinals of the Hockey World League Final. (2:17)

"Everybody gets a seven," India coach Sjoerd Marijne said after India beat Belgium 3-2 in the shootout after the thrilling 60 minutes of their Hockey World League Final quarterfinal finished 3-3 in Bhubaneswar on Wednesday.

It seemed an oddly underwhelming reaction from the Dutchman, for whom the World League Final is the first global tournament since having taken over from Roelant Oltmans only in September.

India came into the match as massive underdogs, but dominated most of the game. They made their share of mistakes, but played arguably their best hockey in four games in front of a capacity crowd at the Kalinga Stadium. They faced a Belgian team that had come in on the back of three consecutive wins, 11 goals scored, and clean sheets in their last two games.

The collective over the individual

In the first half, India were compact in defence and executed their plans to perfection, intercepting balls from midfield and looking to hit Belgium on the counter. Goalkeeper Suraj Karkera, starting in place of Akash Chikte for the first time, made a couple of neat saves, and also survived a Belgian goal in the 11th minute that was ruled out for a backstick on referral.

India really put their game together in the first five minutes after the third quarter started, suggesting why Wednesday night was all about teamwork. They pressed in high numbers, with SV Sunil, Akashdeep Singh, Gurjant Singh and Kothajit Singh all finding themselves inside the Belgian defensive third. A cross from the right was narrowly missed by Gurjant, but he then pounced on a ball that fell to him off a Sunil shot saved by Belgian goalkeeper Vincent Vanasch to put India ahead.

Four minutes later, India had their third penalty corner, and the first on the relatively smoother southern side of the pitch. India had put in extra emphasis on practising their PCs leading up to this game, and it showed with a variation, as Rupinder Pal Singh played in Harmanpreet Singh with a dummy. India went 2-0 up with five minutes of controlled aggression.

The Belgian counterpunch

Belgium Loick Luypaert is staking a claim to be the player of the tournament irrespective of where his team finishes. On Wednesday, Loick converted two PCs in the space of seven minutes to begin the Belgian fightback, taking his goals tally for the tournament to eight in the process.

However, where he will really feel the pinch is that he failed to convert Belgium's fourth and final PC three minutes from time. Chikte, who had stepped in after Luypaert's second goal, made a comfortable-looking save, but one that effectively made it easier for both teams to play for the shootout.

Belgium coach Shane McLeod praised the "immense character" of his team, and said they would benefit from this experience of playing in Bhubaneswar, the venue for the World Cup next November, with a vociferous crowd doubling up as the twelfth man. "It's something hard to describe. When as a player you know you are up against a crowd like this, you tend to get a bit isolated. It is spooky when the entire stadium goes deathly quiet when you score," he said.

Indians keep their calm

India's composure towards the end of normal time, and during the shootout -- one of the most high-pressure stages of a hockey match, where the striker gets eight seconds to hoodwink the 'keeper -- made the difference.

Harmanpreet stepped up not once but twice, including once in sudden death, to beat Vanasch. He was one of three experienced players among the five India selected for the shootout. The other two -- Rupinder and Akashdeep - missed theirs, the latter seeing his potentially match-deciding shot bounce off the crosspiece for dramatic effect. Among the youngsters, Sumit sprayed it wide, but Lalit Upadhyay made no mistake.

When push came to shove, India's Chikte used a high-risk strategy not unlike what PR Sreejesh often does when in goal. He came off his line quicker than his Belgian counterpart Vanasch, but then just ensured that he followed what the striker was doing.

A semi-final matchup against either England or Argentina now awaits and back in the dressing room, captain Manpreet Singh was quick to bring the team's focus back on the task at hand. "The last time here, we won our quarterfinal against Belgium and then lost in the semi-finals. This time we just have to win," he said, citing a Champions Trophy defeat to Pakistan in 2014.

And about the seven?

"I rate five as poor, six as average and seven one step ahead of that," Marijne told ESPN. "What happens is that teams invariably want to play an eight and in that effort, they wind up playing at five. When you play a seven, this is what you get to see."