Mandeep Singh and Nick Wilson scored twice each to help hosts Ranchi Rhinos beat Uttar Pradesh Wizards 4-2 in a thrilling encounter and enter the summit clash of the inaugural Hockey India league in front of a packed Astroturf Hockey Stadium in Ranchi on Saturday.
The Rhinos scored through field goals from Mandeep (5th minute, 66th) and Wilson (32nd, 64th), while Nithin Thimmaiah (16th, 54th) was the goal-getter for the Wizards.
Encouraged by a capacity home crowd it was the Rhinos who started the proceedings on a bright note and was soon rewarded for their efforts when Mandeep scored in the fifth minute after latching on to a loose ball inside the Wizards 'D'.
Stunned by the early goal, the UP side pressed hard with numerous raids into the rival citdel but with no purpose till the 16th minute when Thimmaiah equalised for the visitors.
The lanky Thimmaiah brought Wizards back into the game, finding the back of the Rhinos net with a reverse hit after she was beautifully set up by Dutch legend Tuen de Nooijer.
The Rhinos, however, were the better side on display at least in the opening half. The hosts earned as many as four penalty corners in the first two quarters only to be denied by a brilliant George Bazeley under the UP bar.
The Rhinos managed to restore their parity three minutes from the opening half through Nick Wilson who managed to find the back of the UP net from a goal-mouth melee. The Wizards, however, protested the goal and went for the referral which was rejected.
The Wizards got an opportunity to equalise soon when they were awarded their first penalty corner at the stroke of half time, but the visitors wasted the chance to trail 1-2 at the first 35 minutes.
Ranchi started on the same breath after the change of ends and earned their fifth penalty corner in the opening minute of the second half but failed to capitalize on it.
The Rhinos' game got better and better as the match progressed. The Wizards, on the other hand, threatened with occasional forays.
Both the teams created opportunities in the third quarter but without any result.
The Wizards, however, made a great start to the fourth quarter as Thimmaiah got the visitors on level terms scoring from a rebound after De Nooijer's intial touch hit the body of Ranchi custodian Francisco Cortes.
It took two brilliant field goals from the Rhinos in a span of three minutes to seal the game and a place in Sunday's title clash in their favour.
Wilson scored his second goal of the day in the 64th minute from the top of the 'D' after a solo run from the mid-field.
Two minutes later, a young Mandeep celebrated his maiden selection in the Indian team in style when he hit his 10th goal in the tournament by virtue of sheer individual brilliance.
Mandeep, who was selected in the Indian team for the Hockey World League 2 in New Delhi later this month, lobbed the ball above the head of UP goal-keeper after receiving long scoop to send the crowd into frenzy.
Victorious Ranchi coach Gregg Clarke and skipper Moritz Furste was full of praise for Mandeep, terming the young forward as the future star of Indian hockey.
"Mandeep was simply brilliant. When we first saw him he was a little boy just jumping around the field. But he has evolved as a player as the tournament progressed," Clark said.
"I hope you will enjoy Mandeep in the next 10 years to come," Furste added.
The Wizards coach Roelant Oltmans obviously was a disappointed man but admitted that the Rhinos were by far the better side today.
"We are obviously disappointed. I feel we didn't start well. Ranchi were the better team, they made remarkable forays," he said.
Oltmans, however, was critical of Ranchi's second goal which was upheld after the Wizards went for the referral.
"Ranchi's second goal was important because everyone saw it was not a goal. I feel you either don't use the referral system or use it properly," he said.