India beat Japan 1-0 in open play but the credit for India’s victory was largely attributable to their brave goalkeeper Savita Poonia. In one of the boldest performances between the two goal posts, scintillating Savita saved six certain goals on Saturday in Indian women’s fifth-place play-off match against Japan in the Hockey World League Semifinals at Antwerp. The match winning goal came in the 13th minutes, when Vandana Katariya barged inside the box and shot at the goal. Vandana’s shot, however, was blocked by the Japanese custodian but Rani Rampaul, who was lurking nearby, capitalized on the rebound. As the match proceeded, Japanese forwards mounted several raids in India’s goal area but Savita stood like a rock in thwarting all goal-scoring opportunities for Japan. In the last quarter itself, Japan won five penalty corners but they couldn’t get past the determined Indian goalkeeper. The victory against Japan has further enhanced India’s hopes of Olympic qualification.
Despite their loss in the quarterfinals to the Netherlands, India had hoped for a victorious finish over Japan with the sole aim of improving their chances for next year’s Rio Olympic. If they finally make it, it will be the first time since Moscow 1980 that Indian women become eligible to play in the Olympic Games once again. As the match started at the Municipal Stadium at Antwerp, India forced a penalty corner within the first 30 seconds but the chance couldn’t be fructified. Japanese women were equal to the task and led by their captain Miyuki Nakagawa and star forward Akiko Kato, they attempted to break into India’s circle. But solid defense from India disappointed them. In the 13th minute, Lilima Minz began a move inside the Indian territory and passed the ball to Vandana Katariya. With a great solo run, Vandana burst in Japan’s ‘D’ and fired a reverse stick shot into the goal. While Vandana’s shot was blocked by goalkeeper Sakiyo Asano, the rebound fell in the path of Rani Rampaul, whose stinging shot went crashing into the goal. Japan came close to equalizing in the 20th minute through their first penalty corner but Hazuki Nagai’s deflection went off the right post. India too got another chance in 25th minute, but three strikers in Japan’s ‘D’ couldn’t convert the opportunity. The tempo of the match shot up and both teams raided each other’s goal. Japan got their third penalty corner in the 37th minute but the efforts from Miyuki Kato and Yamamoto Yukari were thwarted by Indian defender Monika and the third quarter ended in India’s favor at 1-0.
The fourth quarter was keenly fought. India tried to double their lead but failed to do so. The Japanese were quite aggressive with the game slipping away from their grasp. In the last 10 minutes, the Indian women fell back to defend the lead. But Japan pushed forward in constantly trying to get the elusive equalizer. Japan got four penalty corners but Savita’s agile goalkeeping denied them any goals. When the final whistle blew, Indian hockey stars embraced each other in celebrations. Effectively, India’s fifth place finish at Antwerp should secure them an Olympic Games ticket, when the countdown to allocate final places for Rio Olympics takes place.