Bhubaneswar -- Ahead of India's two-legged Olympic qualifier against the U.S., the two teams' coaches had spoken of contrasting philosophies about their approach to the games. While Sjoerd Marijne was keen on Rani Rampal's India treating them as two individual matches, Janneke Schopman advised the U.S. to think of the tie as a 120-minute match, "the first half on Friday, and the second half on Saturday".
At the end of the 'first half', India find themselves 5-1 up, virtually out of sight, thanks in large part to their talismanic captain.
Marijne and Schopman go back a long way. Schopman, a two-time Olympic medallist for Netherlands, played for the same club, Den Bosch, as Marijne and even played under the latter as assistant coach during a tour of U.S. with the national team.
India took to the field embodying the message from their coach, Rani's early scoop out wide from the pushback making their intent clear, as did a couple of hard presses on the U.S. defenders and the quick execution of sideline push-ins.
U.S. held their ground and competed on an even keel for most of the first half, even forcing the first save off Savita Punia. Schopman's plan worked to perfection, denying the Indian strikers space, for about 26 minutes.
That was around the time Vandana Katariya latched on to a crossfield pass and dribbled her way into the U.S. circle. Her initial shot was a rasping one but bounced off goalkeeper Kelsey Bing's pads, and then Vandana's return shot hit a defender's foot, giving India their second penalty corner (PC).
Gurjit Kaur's first attempt hit the first runner from U.S. and then, off the resultant PC, India got on the board -- an automatic lift to their spirits, as well as those watching at the Kalinga Stadium. It was a goal that almost never happened.
Lilima Minz injected and Sushila Chanu failed to trap the ball clean for Gurjit. She still had the presence of mind to slip it out wide to Rani, who dribbled in and found two U.S. defenders homing in on her. She did a perfect spin and found Navjot Kaur, who then pinged it further to Neha Goyal, whose first touch took the ball across the face of goal to Lilima.
A perfect loop, closed by one of the local stars in the team, to give India the upper hand in what had been a tense battle until then. It was a case of crisis management executed to perfection, with two of the seniors in Sushila and Rani doing the legwork.
India began the third quarter with renewed vigour -- Rani would pick out a superb pass to the left for Navneet Kaur near the post and the latter's pass was helped into goal by Sharmila Devi. India won their sixth PC not long after, when Rani again picked the ball inside the U.S. circle, took on the defence and found a foot. Gurjit would convert this time and, with 18 minutes still on the clock, the match -- and possibly the tie -- had been put to bed. The Kalinga roared as the visitors' shoulders visibly began to drop.
U.S. threw everything forward in the final quarter and that allowed India to strike on a perfect counter, with the pacy Salima Tete bounding down the right and putting in a perfectly weighted ball for Navneet to control and slam home in the first minute itself. Later in the quarter, Rani played another precise pass through to Monika Malik, who was checked as she shaped to shoot. Penalty stroke, which Gurjit duly converted.
India had put in the hard yards but the moments that made the difference all came from their talisman and captain. Rani's spin, her vision and overall skills on the ball brought in other members of the midfield and striking line into play repeatedly. She had built up on Marijne's philosophy and effectively turned Schopman's plan on its head with her individual brilliance.
U.S. got a late consolation of their own from the spot, but they will now need to cover a near-impossible ground to keep their Tokyo dream alive. For them to have any chance of that, they will also have to deal with another 60 minutes of Rani, which must seem like an eternity for their defenders after tonight.