The Indian men’s hockey team defeated Russia 4-2 in the first leg of their Olympic qualifiers match at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneshwar on Friday. With the win, the Men in Blues are one step away from sealing their berth in 2020 Tokyo Games.
Three breathtaking saves by Russian goalkeeper Marat Gafarov in the waning moments of the match restricted India of a big win. Gafarov also saved a few penalty corners awarded to the hosts. Nonetheless, India would be complacent with the victory. However, in their previous clash, India had beaten Russia 10-0.
The No 5 ranked home team was the obvious favourite against 22nd ranked Russia before the match on Friday.
India took an early lead thanks to a penalty stroke from Harmanpreet Singh in the fifth minute.
After the goal, Russia forced a few good saves from PR Sreejesh before their enterprise finally bore fruit in the 17th minute. Rupinder Singh was caught napping by an overhead pass which was calmly slotted into the goal by Andrey Kuraev.
Mandeep Singh scored with six minutes to go in the first half and put India’s struggle on a temporary halt.
India had only one more shot than Russia in the first half and made 10 circle penetrations as opposed to their opponents’ six.
The home team came out with a more fluid approach in the second half and goals from SV Sunil (48th minute) and Mandeep Singh (53rd minute) made the scoreline look like what was expected before the match.
However, the Russians did not lose heart and kept punching above their weights.
Semen Matkovskiy managed to convert one of the seven shots and the away side managed in the second half to reduce the deficit in the final minute of the match.
Gafarov then did his bit to ensure that the second leg does not become a formality, making three fine saves to check India from swelling the lead.
“We did not play up to the mark. We need to play better tomorrow than we did today. They also have come here for the qualification, so tomorrow is the most important day,” said captain Manpreet Singh in the post-match presentation ceremony.