BHUBANESWAR -- Ask Mandeep Singh which was his favourite of the two goals he scored in saving India the blushes in a 4-2 win over Russia, during the first of two Olympic qualifiers, and he wastes no time in telling you the answer...almost before you have even finished.
"I enjoyed the one with the flick more, because the reverse-flick is my favourite and that's what I enjoyed scoring more," he grins, talking about the goal that had put India 2-1 up in the first half. Given the slightest of margins by the stoic Russian defence, he pulled away to his backhand side, swivelled his stick around behind his left shoulder and sent a thunderbolt past Marat Gafarov in goal.
It was that kind of a night for India -- pre-match predictions included many that saw India improving on a 10-0 hiding handed out to the Russians during the Series Finals at this very ground in June, but head coach Vladimir Konkin had promised that his team would make it a tough night for the hosts. They achieved that for much of the night, packing their own half with all 11 players for most part and hitting India well on the counter. One such counter had seen Andrey Kuraev draw level, sending the Kalinga Stadium into a hushed silence of disbelief.
Midfielder Vivek Sagar Prasad would say later that while the Indians were taken by surprise by just how good Russia were, coach Graham Reid urged his team to increase their energy levels and pile more pressure on the visitors in the second part of the game.
This is where Mandeep Singh's excellence began making a difference. With the ball rarely leaving the Russian side of the pitch, he clung close to Gafarov -- he would laugh later when asked if that style of play has led to some polite conversations and friendships with rival goalkeepers -- and kept bobbing across the circle, keeping the keeper and his defenders engaged with his movement.
It led to Russia dropping slightly deeper as a whole, and opened up spaces for Manpreet Singh and Vivek to move into. One such movement opened up a scoring opportunity for SV Sunil, and then Manpreet fed Mandeep for a trademark deflection to put India 4-1 ahead.
"I have to stay focused on my job, and that job is basically to stay inside the circle and that is my area. All I think about at that time is where I can create some gaps, [from] where can I get a touch on the ball and where I can deflect [goalwards] from," says Mandeep, explaining that his movements are essentially a combination of anticipation, luck and understanding with the defensive line. "I keep my eyes on Harmanpreet Singh, Rupinder Pal Singh and Amit Rohidas, and [know] their overheads are about to come in, so what I try to do is get myself into gaps from where I can receive the ball."
Reid was thankful after the match for a finisher as clinical as Mandeep -- take his two goals away and you could have had a draw for the Russians after Semen Matkovskiy's penalty-corner conversion. Mandeep himself believes there's still some legs in this tie, and that's why they need to come back with renewed energy on Saturday.
"We couldn't have taken them lightly because every team has prepared hard to qualify for the Olympics. We knew we had to play our team game, and we created enough chances but we didn't convert as well as we should have. We have to improve on this after watching the video analysis of this game," he says. "Every match is challenging, because there's no fun in a game unless there's a challenge involved.
"There was a good fight today, and we need to come back better tomorrow."