Rio de Janeiro, Aug 7 (IANS) The Indian women’s hockey team showed tremendous fighting spirit as it came back from a two-goal deficit to hold Japan 2-2 in its opening pool encounter of the Olympics here on Sunday.
For Japan, Nishikhori Emi (15th minute) opened the scoring and then Mie Nakashima (28th minute) stretched the lead, while Rani Rampal (31st minute) and Lilima Minz (40th minute) were the goal-scorers for India, who were playing in the Olympics after a gap of 36 years.
In one of the toughest-fought matches in the event so far, it was India, who made the smarter start. They held the ball possession as Lilima dictated the play in the midfield with Vandana Katariya and Preeti Dubey making the runs ahead.
In a smart move, Lilima’s drive from the top of the circle came off a Japanese stick towards Dubey with just the goalkeeper to beat. The defensive pressure was just enough though as she shot wide.
Within minutes, there was another, this time Poonam Rani dragging an effort wide.
They created enough problems in the Japanese defence to score a few, but finally it was Japan’s patience that paid off.
With 10 seconds of the first quarter to go, Japan won their first penalty corner and a swift improvisation left India’s defence and Savita in goal with no chance. Nishikori shot home to give Japan the lead heading into the break.
The second quarter was tougher, as India down a goal looked to play upfield, Japan content on the counter. Savita was called into action for the first time in the quarter and pulled a sharp save to deny Japan a second.
Japan tightened their grip on the game in the 28th minute, with Nakashima deflecting a cross from the left to double their lead as they went into half-time at the Olympic hockey centre.
India came out of the half-time stronger, and immediately tasted success as Rani found the Japanese net via a penalty corner in the 31st minute of the game.
Japan had a penalty corner of their own soon enough but was pushed wide. It was to prove one of their final successful forays of the quarter, as India pushed on creating opportunities to draw the game level.
First they pulled a penalty corner wide, before Japan’s goalkeeper Asano Sakiyo was called into action, pulling off a smart save.
Later, Lilima scored in the 40th minute to equalise the score. The first shot was blocked by the Japanese goalkeeper, but India capitalised on the rebound with captain P. Sushila Chanu playing the ball uppishly for Lilima to slot home.
India kept up the pressure in the final quarter, Rani forcing another smart save off a penalty corner from Asano, before her opposite number in the Indian goal, Savita went better, thwarting wave after wave of Japanese attempts — at one point four in a row — to keep India level.
The final minutes were a frenzy with Japan pushing to get the winner as India held on, defensively strong, for the point. It was India who came closest to winning it though, Vandana denied by Asano’s stick in the dying seconds of the game.
With the seconds ticking down, India sharpened the attack but failed to break through the Japanese defence and settled for a draw.
Speaking after the match, India chief coach Neil Hawgood said: “This was our first time on this stage and it was a smart performance.
“Our first points at the Olympics. It is a milestone for this generation of Indian women hockey.”