FIH Pro League: It was a World champions day
It was a day of world champions. Both men and women champions recorded impressive wins in the ongoing FIH Pro League to reclaim their respective places at the top of the standings.
Caia van Maasakker scored three times as the Netherlands women recorded a 6-0 victory over China at SV Kampong in Utrecht. The result sees the Dutch move ahead of Argentina into first place in the standings, having claimed 83.33 percent of the points available to them.
Belgium’s women, the lowest ranked team in the FIH Pro League, continued its fairytale story with a dramatic 2-1 defeat of USA at the Royal Uccle Sports Complex in Brussels, with a late strike from Louise Versavel strengthening its hold on third position in the table.
Also at Royal Uccle, Belgium’s men produced a sensational performance to thrash Spain 7-3 to re-take first place in the men’s standings ahead of Australia. The Red Lions scored six times without reply in the opening two quarters, with Florent van Aubel and Tom Boon both netting twice in a dominant display from the world number one.
The women of Belgium (FIH World Ranking: 13) and USA (WR:12) were facing each other for the second time in less than two weeks, with the Americans claiming a narrow shoot-out victory over the Europeans at the Spooky Nook Sports Complex in Pennsylvania after normal time finished with the scores locked at 1-1.
The re-match in front of a big crowd at Royal Uccle was equally tense and cagey, with the Americans frustrating their high flying opponents throughout the first two periods. Belgium enjoyed the lion’s share of possession and looked the side most likely to break the deadlock, but USA’s defensive line held firm to take a 0-0 score into half time.
Belgium finally broke USA resistance in the third quarter when the influential Alix Gerniers worked her way around the back of the American defence before providing the perfect pass for Anne-Sophie Weyns to score from close range. However, it was a lead that lasted just five minutes, with Linnea Gonzales pouncing on a saved penalty corner to squeeze the ball into the goal.
The winning goal arrived with less than 50 seconds of the match remaining, and if the timing of the goal were not dramatic enough, a video referral was needed to double check that Louise Versavel had made contact to Gerniers’ terrific pass into the USA circle. The slow motion replays were indisputable, with the toe of Versavel’s stick diverting the ball through the legs of USA shot-stopper Kelsey Bing to seal another valuable three points to the Red Panthers.
“We were really happy because we didn’t expect that we would still score in the last seconds”, said Player of the Match Barbara Nelen. “It was a really difficult game and I think we managed well. Our keeper (Aisling D’Hooghe) did a good job. We didn’t play really well as a team, but we won so that is enough.”
Across the border, the Netherlands women (WR:1) made their long awaited FIH Pro League home debut when they took on China (WR:10) – a side they beat 2-1 in Changzhou earlier this year – at SV Kampong in Utrecht in front of a near capacity crowd bathing in the early evening sunshine. Laura Nunnink rattled the frame of the China goal early in the opening quarter shortly before Caia van Maasakker sent a penalty corner drag-flick inside the right post to give the hosts the lead after just seven minutes.
The Oranje would have been sitting on a comfortable lead were it not for yet another sensational goalkeeping performance from China’s Ye Jiao, who made save after save to deny a Dutch side that was threatening to run riot.
The Netherlands had to wait until three minutes before the end of the third quarter before finally getting their second goal, with Van Maasakker again on target from a penalty corner situation ahead of a fourth quarter that saw the Dutch move out of sight. A high shot from Federique Matla made it 3-0 before Xan de Waard produced a moment of improvised brilliance, deflecting a pass from Matla around her back to completely deceive Ye, with Martijn Veen and a third for Van Maasakker completing the scoring at 6-0.
“It was amazing to play here in front of a home crowd, with everyone cheering so loud for us, it’s really cool”, said hat-trick hero Van Maasakker, who was named Player of the Match. On whether she was satisfied with her team’s performance, Van Maasakker said: “Definitely. I think we started well, we played a good match, especially in the second half. We converted our chances, so it was a good win.”
In the men’s competition, Belgium’s Red Lions (WR:1) followed the Red Panthers onto the Royal Uccle turf in what was their first competitive international home match since winning the Odisha Hockey Men’s World Cup Bhubaneswar 2018. Their opponents were Spain (WR:9), a team that had claimed a surprise shoot-out win over the world champions when the two sides met in the very first FIH Pro League match on 19 January. However, any thoughts of Spain repeating that success on Belgian soil were quickly ended as the hosts thrilled the crowd with a scintillating exhibition of attacking hockey.
The Red Lions were at their mesmerising best in the opening two quarters, scoring twice in the opening period before adding another four goals in the second to open up a staggering 6-0 lead at half time. Florent van Aubel’s brilliant strike off the back foot got the ball rolling before Tom Boon netted on the stroke of quarter time, with Van Aubel and Boon on also target in quarter two alongside Cedric Charlier and team captain Felix Denayer.
Boon turned provider for Arthur van Doren who made it 7-0 with a delicate close range finish three minutes after half time, before Spain’s Red Sticks rallied late to with goals from Pau Quemada (2) and Enrique Gonzales to complete a 7-3 score-line.
“All international matches are difficult, but I think we started off really well, really wanting to show something in front of our home crowd and I think we did that”, said Player of the Match Arthur van Doren. “The way we started, in the first quarter, we got some early goals on the board and that always makes it easier. Overall I think we can be really happy. We got the three points and played a really good game.”
Result: Women’s Match 31
Belgium 2, USA 1
Player of the Match: Barbara Nelen (BEL)
Result: Men’s Match 24
Belgium 7, Spain 3
Player of the Match: Arthur Van Doren (BEL)