VR Raghunath India Rio Olympics
India drag-flicker VR Raghunath strikes the penalty corner that gave India the equaliser against the Netherlands in their Rio 2016 Olympics Pool B encounter, Aug.11, 2016Reuters

It was gripping, absorbing hockey, and while India went down to a powerful Netherlands team in this Pool B match, they will take great heart from their performance.

Having picked up a crucial victory over Argentina, which put them nearly through to the quarterfinals, India did their best to hold the Netherlands for the longest time, but two crucial indiscretions from VR Raghunath and SV Sunil, which led to yellow cards, proved to be the difference in the end as the Dutch ran-out 2-1 winners. The Holland goals came from Rogier Hofman and Mink Van der Weerden, with VR Raghunath adding another to his kitty from a penalty corner. In the end, it did not matter, though, as far as qualification to the quarterfinals was concerned, as, owing to later results, India made it to the knockout stages for the first time since 1980.

The first half was cagey at best, with both sides feeling each other out, and not prepared to go all-out and attack, knowing the counter-attacking strengths of their opponents. It was still an absorbing watch, though, with India, again, showing just how much they have improved in defence.

What used to be a don't-know-what-you're-going-to-get-backline is now one that is assured and one that defends as a team, from the front.

The Netherlands did their best to try and shift that Indian defence around, but there was no moving them around and hardly any chances came for either team to exploit.

Holland looked a little stronger in the second quarter, holding more of the possession, and even making a couple of penetrations into India's D, but when they did find a way through, that man PR Sreejesh was there to thwart any danger, using his feet to great effect on a couple of occasions.

India just could not find their attacking rhythm, with Sardar Singh, again playing in a much more advanced role, rather than the deep-lying playmaking one he is known for, man marked pretty well by the Dutch defence, while the rest of the pacy forwards could not find enough space either.

The pace and excitement picked up in the second half, as the Netherlands scored a minute and 43 seconds into the final 30. The Dutch found space along the baseline, found that penalty corner they were looking for, Sreejesh made a fabulous save off the short corner, but the rebound fell to Hofman, who was on hand to sweep the ball home.

Sic minutes later, though, the match was back level again, as India found that penalty corner they were looking for. Jacob Stockmann made a solid save off the first effort, but after a second penalty corner was handed, Raghunath did not make a mistake this time around, firing one low and hard, with a slight deflection aiding his case as the ball flew past Stockmann's left.

In the final 18 minutes, though, there was only one team in it, partly because of the increase in pressure, and mainly due to the fact that India had to play around ten minutes with ten men, a fair bit of which were played with just nine, as Sunil and Raghunath, who had also earlier received a green card, were shown yellow cards – Raghunath for an unnecessary elbow and Sunil for a push.

While India held out during that testing time, the pressure that had built up eventually told, as a penalty corner was power home by star drag-flicker Van der Weerden on 54 minutes.

Having defended for so long in the second half, India looked like they might not have the legs to force a way through and find a second equaliser, but they pulled the goalkeeper Sreejesh out, and piled the pressure on the Dutch defence.

A couple of penalty corners came their way, the first one was wasted, while the second one, won with six seconds left on the clock and after India went for a referral, gave this wonderful match more drama.

The first four attempts – no really, four – failed to go in, India's fifth attempt, off the stick of Rupinder Pal Singh, was brilliant kept out by the Sander Baart on the line, giving the Dutch an unforgettable victory.

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