Defending champions New Zealand outclassed India 2-0 in a crucial Azlan Shah Cup hockey match at Ipoh, Malaysia on Thursday evening. Both goals came in the second half. Andy Hayward scored his third goal of the tournament in the 39th minute and Cory Bennett added the insurance in the 57th as the Black Sticks kept their hopes alive with six points from four games.
Australia currently lead the six-nation championship table with eight points from four games while hosts Malaysia are second (eight points but with an inferior goal difference). Saturday's Trans-Tasman clash between New Zealand and Australia will determine one of Sunday's finalists.
After Malaysia were held to a 2-2 draw by Pakistan in the last match on Thursday, three teams are in the running for the two final slots, Australia, Malaysia and New Zealand. Malaysia's last round-robin match against India will therefore be very crucial.
On Thursday, it was India's third defeat in four matches. India's only victory came against Pakistan after back-to-back losses against Australia and Korea. After a listless first half, New Zealand looked the better side, scoring twice from three penalty corners. By contrast, India wasted both their penalty corners that came in the second session of play.
Hayward put New Zealand ahead in the 39th minute with a strong flick at the far post. India's goalkeeper Sreejesh failed to narrow the angle as the Kiwis broke the deadlock in a match that was conspicuous by tight defending at both ends.
Even though skipper Danish Mujtaba took some initiative midway through the second session, the Kiwis shut the Indians out. The Black Sticks were good on counter-attacks and won their third penalty corner of the match, which got them goal No. 2. Bennett scored in the 57th minute with a reverse hit after Sreejesh blocked the first strike but left his line to leave the goal unmarked.
It was a scrappy first half with both teams enjoying almost equal possession. On a hot and humid evening, the Kiwis turned on the heat in the opening minute, but Sreejesh continued his rock solid performance in the tournament. Interesting, this was the first match of the tournament that did not produce a goal in the first half.
The fact that India had just one shot on target in the first session proved that the New Zealanders kept a tight vigil on India's chief game-maker, Manpreet Singh. There were sporadic moves from the flanks and the only time India came close to scoring, the Kiwi goalie McGregor was up to the task.
India's defence looked leaky at times but the Black Sticks didn't have the efficiency to take advantage. The only penalty corner in the 26th minute was wasted by the Kiwis but they returned stronger in the second half as the inexperience in the Indian side surfaced time and again.