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FIH Pro League: The Netherlands men continue to dazzle; China and Belgium women on winning spree

The elite hockey-playing nations fielded their experimental sides for the leftover games.

With the top positions already decided, the last phase of the FIH Pro League, both for men and women, witnessed good relaxed games as some of the elite hockey-playing nations fielded their experimental sides for the leftover games. Germany, for example, fielded a young experimental side that went down to China 0-3 in one of the three matches decided this weekend. Belgium Red Panthers put a disappointing first half performance behind them to rack up a 5-0 win over the USA. The intensity ramped up in HC Den Bosch when the new FIH Pro League champions Netherlands men and the unpredictable Spanish team treated the spectators to a display of pacy, intense, sometimes dazzling and sometimes chaotic hockey. The Dutch won 4-3.

In the Belgium-US game, neither of the teams showed the level of performance of which they are capable in the opening quarter. Belgium was disappointing with its execution of the first few penalty corners, including one which simply passed by the attacking team at the top of the circle. Towards the end of the quarter USA had a period of pressure but it too was unable to make its awards count.

The second quarter was much of the same. It took a moment of genius from Belgium’s Louise Versavel to break the deadlock. She received the ball from Pauline Leclef with her back to goal, turned sharply and fired high past Kelsey Bing in the USA goal. USA had its own chances at the end of the half as it won three consecutive penalty corners. A combination of brave defending – from Stephanie Vanden Borre in particular – and USA errors at the top of the circle, meant a total of eight penalty corner attempts came to nothing.

Belgium found its energy, momentum and fluidity in the second half as it began to discover its connections, skills and flowing play. Louise Versavel continued to lead from the front. The midfielder scored Belgium’s second goal and was the driving force that moved her team from first gear to at least third gear. Versavel’s second goal was a well-placed penalty corner that flew into Kelsey Bing’s left-hand corner of the goal.

Abi Raye was next to get onto the scoresheet when she deflected a sharp strike from Pauline Leclef into the goal. That was a slightly fortuitous goal but the next one was most definitely meant. Stephanie Vanden Borre got hold of a penalty corner drag flick from the top of the circle and sent the ball flying straight down the centre of the USA goal.

Raye scored her second and Belgium’s fifth, after a period of flowing team play by the Red Panthers.

Player of the Match, Louise Versavel (Belgium), said: ‘I think the first half was sloppy and we were soft in parts of the game. In the second half we were more aggressive and pressed more. But there were still too many moments when we were soft. We have a lot to improve before the World Cup.’

Germany fielded a young and inexperienced team in this first of two matches against China, and the Asian team was able to take full advantage to earn another win and three points.

China capitalised on penalty corner opportunities, scoring two from three in the first quarter. First Li Hong was able to control a lifted ball from the German defender after Zhang Ying’s initial shot. Hong was able to receive the ball and fire it home past Chiara Vischer in the German goal. The second goal was scored by Zhang Ying herself. The shot was sent between the goalkeeper and the post player to double China’s lead.

A goalless third quarter saw China continue to control the pace of the game, but for all the changes in direction of movement and the switching of play there were very few shooting opportunities for either side.

The third goal for China was scored by Gu Bingfeng. Her penalty corner drag flick was high, fast and accurate. While the shot was impressive, it was the movement that led to the award of the penalty corner that really caught the eye. The ball was played high out of defence with a beautiful aerial. The ball was received in the German circle by Zhang Xindan who drew the foul that led to the goal.

Player of the Match Cui Qiuxia (China) said: ‘We are happy we got three points. The first quarter we started slowly but after that we played much better. We are looking forward to the World Cup. We need to focus if we are to get another winning result tomorrow.’

The Netherlands got off to a blistering start against Spain in its penultimate match of the FIH Pro League season.

As expected of the champions, the men in orange hit the ground at top speed and Thierry Brinkman was perfectly positioned to open the scoring from close range in the fourth minute. The lead was doubled a few minutes later when a beautiful cross field aerial was received by Floris Wortelboer on the edge of the Spanish circle. He played the ball to Jelle Galema who slotted it past Mario Garin in the Spanish goal.

Spain fought back and it was a clever and audacious goal that opened its account. Alvaro Inglesias dribbled the ball along the Netherlands’ baseline before shaping up to pass it back. As the defence and goalkeeper all fell for the faint, he was able to squeeze the ball home.

Immediately after the break, Spain were able to benefit from a player advantage. Laars Balk received a green card and Spain instantly went on the attack. Although Maurits Visser in the Netherlands’ goal was able to stop the first wave of Spanish attack, he could do nothing about the crisply taken shot from the top of the circle by Ignacio Rodriguez.

The final moments of the second quarter saw Netherlands quickly regain the lead. A series of quick passes saw Terrance Pieters in a great position in the circle from where he was able to lift the ball home.

The third quarter saw Netherlands playing some beautifully controlled hockey. The team in orange would run the ball into the Spanish circle on one side, realise there was no way through and so re-cycle and start again. That patience yielded two penalty corners but Spain dealt with the chances well.

There were no goals in the third quarter but both sides had their moments and, with 15 minutes to go, this looked like a match with more goals in it.

Netherlands extended its lead to 4-2 in the 53rd minute when Jonas de Geus was able to deflect the ball into the goal with a well-worked penalty corner routine. The initial ball in was played by Jip Jansen.

Spain, as is its way, battled to the end but the Netherlands was in superb form right now and was unlikely to let the lead slip with just a few minutes of play left.

Player of the Match, Jelle Galema (the Netherlands) said: ‘That was really good. It is difficult to come back after a celebration (after winning the Pro League last week) but we worked really hard and you saw 18 guys running like hell. For me that was a special goal because I have had two operations and it has been difficult and sometimes painful. Today I was back with my family and friends supporting me from the stands.’

Results: Women

USA 0, Belgium
Player of the Match: Louise Versavel (Belgium)

China 3, Germany 0
Player of the Match: Cui Qixuia (China)

Men

Netherlands 4, Spain 3

Player of the Match: Jelle Galema (the Netherlands)

Prabhjot Singh