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Olympic hockey qualifiers: India women thrash Italy 5-1, enter semis | Hockey

It took 45 seconds for India to get their first goal. It took the final second for Italy to get theirs. In between, India had done enough and more to secure the semi-final spot in the FIH Women’s Hockey Olympic Qualifiers here and keep their 2024 Paris Olympics hopes on track.

Ranchi: India's Salima Tete celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal during FIH Women�s Olympic Qualifiers Ranchi 2024 hockey match between India and Italy at Marang Gomke Jaipal Singh Astro Turf Hockey Stadium(PTI)
Ranchi: India’s Salima Tete celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal during FIH Women�s Olympic Qualifiers Ranchi 2024 hockey match between India and Italy at Marang Gomke Jaipal Singh Astro Turf Hockey Stadium(PTI)

What appeared to have gone horribly off the rails in the opening loss to USA was strung back together in two solid victories against New Zealand and Italy, the latter coming by 5-1 on Tuesday.

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Coach Janneke Schopman could afford a smile later, for the first hurdle had been crossed. World No. 5 and Pool A toppers Germany await in the semi-final on Thursday, where a defeat could still give the team another bite at the Paris cherry with the losing semi-finalists of the USA-Japan clash.

With USA beating New Zealand 1-0 earlier in the day to qualify atop Pool B, the task for the hosts was pretty straightforward: win or draw with the 19th-ranked Italians.

Win they did, through a free-flowing start and finish. A 40-minute period between the first goal and the second had India “struggle a bit before picking themselves up and dominating the game”, as the coach stated.

A lot of boxes were ticked. Udita, playing her 100th international match, pumped in some cheer to India’s penalty corner (PC) woes with a couple of goals through her slap in the first and 55th minute. Deepika, the team’s primary dragflicker who is yet to fire in this tournament, finally got one goal to her name through a penalty stroke (41st minute). Salima Tete (45th minute) was enterprising, while Navneet Kaur (53rd) rounded off the night with a quality field goal.

“I’m happy that we’re here,” Schopman said. “What people don’t realise is that this is an extremely stressful tournament for the players. Everybody wants to be in the top four and have a chance to go to Paris.”

That was evident through the faces of the New Zealand players, who walked off the turf in tears after their loss while the Indians made their way into it.

The beginning by the hosts on Tuesday mirrored the one against the Black Sticks. India were off the blocks with pace and purpose. A Monika slap inside the circle followed by Sangita Kumari’s shot at goal earned India a PC inside the first minute. Udita stepped up to convert as the bouncing ball went over the diving Italian goalkeeper Lucia Caruso.

The Italians were sloppy on the ball and hardly posted a threat in the first half of the quarter. They began to get a look-in as it progressed, and with less than a minute to go earned their first PC. But after Antonella Bruni failed to trap the ball, the resultant Indian counter-attack was a treat that got the crowd on its feet. Dungdung Beauty took the ball and went on a quick solo run from the left flank, dribbling past Italian captain Sara Puglisi and cutting into the circle. The local girl took a diving shot only for Caruso to stand in the way.

India were making the moves to waltz inside the circle but, as has been their wont, often withered there. In the 25th minute, Deepika picked up the ball from deep in India’s half, ran unchallenged into the Italian D from the left and lost the ball there. The next minute, Salima had another circle entry to no avail. India also earned a couple of PCs either side of half-time but saw one saved and the other not trapped cleanly.

It would take an untidy effort from the Italian defence to double India’s lead in the 41st minute. Lalremsiami pounced on a fumbling back pass by the Italians to sprint in and earn her team a penalty stroke after being brought down by Caruso. The young Deepika stepped up and slotted it to the goalkeeper’s left.

It would take a brilliant team effort of crisp, quick passes to triple the advantage four minutes later. From around the centre of the Italian circle, Neha passed to Vaishnavi Phalke, who placed it to her right to an unmarked Salima. The Simdega sensation slammed it high into the left corner of the net in among the cleanest strikes of the day.

India’s cruise control mode activated, Navneet — she started a quick move from the right and ended it with a goal — and Udita only added to the joyride in the final quarter. Not even a last-second PC by Camila Machin could sour it.

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