With 74 seconds left during India's semi-final at the World League Final against Argentina in Bhubaneswar, the visitors' captain Matias Paredes had a chance to put the game to bed from a long, overhead ball. With most Indians committed to attack in search of an equaliser, Paredes managed to screen past the last defender Harmanpreet Singh, but failed to convert from an acute angle.
A goal at that stage (which would have made it 2-0) would have been an inaccurate reflection of how the game played out, though it was perhaps the only foot Argentina put wrong in an otherwise tactically-astute performance at the Kalinga Stadium on a rainy, cold and windy night. It perhaps came down to the extensive experience of the Argentine players in club hockey in Europe, where they must come across similar conditions more often than the Indians.
Getting it right with the toss
Argentina chose the side going away towards the northern side of the pitch, the area with a reputation for being difficult to trap balls in, and on a day when almost every inch of the turf had seen a considerable build-up of rainwater for about 12 hours prior to push-back.
India began with energy, but the sluggish conditions prevented any fluency for either team in building up. By assigning themselves the tougher end of the pitch to work with, Argentina had hedged their bets on getting a goal in and using the difficult pitch conditions and their skills to block out the Indians.
The difference between the teams
With the lack of pace due to the conditions, India's strategy was simple. "Our game plan was to not concede any PCs (penalty corners) and we were really happy with the way we defended," midfielder SK Uthappa said later.
Two minutes into the second quarter, a stick-check inside the Indian circle was perhaps the only mistake the Indian defence made in the first half, one where Argentina grew in confidence but were finding Akash Chikte at the back a difficult target to get past.
While India were busy referring the decision to the TV umpire, eventually overruled due to lack of sufficient evidence, Argentina showed they were switched on by checking the amount of water in and around the injection spot by pushing the ball in a couple of times. It was, strictly speaking, not an illegal attempt to gain an advantage, but Rupinder had to divert the umpire's attention to stop them from doing it. They played it short to their stopper, who stood closer to the injection spot to reduce the distance the ball had to travel.
The amount of water on the pitch meant Gonzalo Peillat's effort from the resulting PC went diagonally but at a slightly lower pace than normal, finding the gap between Chikte and the left post. It was nevertheless a smart variation by Argentina, and most of their gambles were paying off.
Manpreet's moment of madness
With India needing to up the tempo, captain Manpreet Singh went into one challenge with a bit too much gusto, and saw a yellow card, accompanied by a suspension of 10 minutes as opposed to the usual five. That took the wind out of India's sails, as they began the third quarter with one player short.
Even as Harmanpreet Singh, Varun Kumar and Chinglensana all pushed up to join in attack, Argentina compressed their team effectively, making it impossible for India to try the long ball. When receiving an aerial ball, an attacking player cannot have any player within five yards of him, or it is deemed to be dangerous, and Argentina used this rule to perfection by packing their circle.
The last charge
India did everything but score in the final quarter. They had picked up penalty corners in the third quarter, but failed to convert them. The rain wasn't relenting, and SV Sunil talked about the conditions later. "We cannot offer any excuses, since the conditions were the same for both teams, but our feet were giving way and the stick was slipping out from time to time," he said.
India got a few openings, but Juan Vivaldi in goal did well to keep out Mandeep Singh, Sunil and Lalit Upadhyay. The sides of the pitch were soaked by now, and India were devoid of any pace when looking to run down the wings.
Argentina, wily and experienced as ever, slowed things down as much as they could within the laws of the game. Sideline balls were turned into play slowly, and invariably passed back to keep possession. The invitation for India to attack was on, but there were few channels and spaces where the ball could be effectively played in to keep attacking.
For coach Sjoerd Marijne, Friday was a game he wanted to leave behind and concentrate on a bronze-medal playoff against either Germany or Australia. "I will not watch a replay of today's game. It doesn't say anything about our attacking play. I would have loved to have played Argentina in a normal situation and then (see) if we were good enough to beat them. In these circumstances, they were better. For me that's a shame."
It was a bitter pill to swallow, but a lesson in how to tame the circumstances, one the younger Indian players must put away for the future.