India's hopes of making the gold medal match at the Tokyo Olympics ended on Wednesday after a 2-1 loss against Argentina, who rode on two penalty corner (PC) conversions from captain Noel Barrionuevo and a near-flawless performance from goalkeeper Maria Succi, to cancel out an early goal from Gurjit Kaur. The scoreline was an indicator of just how close the contest was, with India seeing a referral rejected with 17 seconds on the clock that could have given them a last bite of the cherry. India will now play defending champions Great Britain (GBR) for a chance at a historic bronze on Friday, while Argentina go on to meet the Netherlands, who beat GBR 5-1 earlier in the day.
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For the second game in a row, faced with a goalkeeper of the highest quality, Gurjit was able to put away the very first PC earned by India. Just as she did in the quarterfinal against Australia, Gurjit went low to the left of Succi, and inside two minutes, India were 1-0 up in a semi-final few would have envisaged them even contesting in at the start of these Games.
That produced a stirring reply from Argentina, who employed the left flank to push India deep into their defence. Perhaps stunned by the early momentum, India also made the mistake of dropping deep too early. Argentina would soon earn their first PC, but Agustina Gorzelany saw her drag flick deflected wide by Salima Tete, the first rusher. Argentina also failed to make the most of their next short corner, with a failed halt making it difficult for Gorzelany.
After a fruitless first quarter, Barrionuevo took it upon herself to drag off Argentina's third PC, and she pulled off a hard drag, rising past first rusher Lalremsiami and past Savita Punia's left pad into the net.
Savita would then quell a chance for Argentina, with a ball from the left for Julieta Jankunas, with the Indian goalkeeper closing space down to kill off any chances for the Argentine forward. India actually finished the second quarter with a bit of a flurry, creating a couple of PCs with some relentless running and imaginative dribbling between the lines from Rani Rampal and Vandana Katariya. However, Succi produced a couple of good stops to keep the teams level going into the third quarter.
Argentina went ahead for the first time six minutes into the second half, Barrionuevo getting a bit lucky with a drag flick that took a deflection off Sushila Chanu's leg and beat Savita and the defender by her post. The video umpire had a close look to see if the ball was a dangerous one, but in the absence of conclusive evidence, the goal stood. India put a bit more urgency into their game, but the goal cushion suited Argentina fine, who went back to deep defending and marking the Indians tightly in midfield and attack. A green card for Neha Goyal also took the sting out of India's fight midway through the third quarter.
India started the fourth quarter in earnest, putting more pressure in both midfield and up front. Towards the 50th minute, India worked their way with some competent dribbling down the left, and a low ball cross the face of goal beat Succi but could not produce a late deflection from any overlapping forward. India's persistence paid off a minute later, when Neha retrieved a lost cause down the right and whipped in a low pass that deflected off an Argentina defender's stick on to her body. The resultant PC saw Gurjit whip one low to the right of Succi, who guessed correctly, and got enough of her gloves to keep it away from Navneet Kaur, who was ready to pounce on the rebound.
With both teams going for it in the last 10 minutes, Argentina had a golden opportunity to put the game to bed, with a ball from the right finding Micaela Retegui, but Savita came out again to deny the forward. India pushed with all their might, but Succi produced another stop off a speculative shot, and while the ball ballooned off her pads, Navneet was already on the ground and hence deemed to not be in a position to take advantage of the loose ball.
This is already the Indian women's best showing at the Olympics, having finished fourth in a six-team round-robin format in 1980. They were eliminated at the group stages in 2016, where their only previous meeting with Argentina at this level had resulted in a 5-0 win for the South Americans. The men will be playing Germany for a bronze medal at 7 am IST on Thursday.