FIH Pro League: Belgium, England men continue their winning spree. the Netherlands wins second successive bonus against Argentina

It was a weekend of exciting hockey. While Belgium and England men continued their winning spree, the Netherlands women completed a “bonus” double against still unbeaten Argentina while Spain shocked the hosts England in the second woman’s game in the FIH Pro League matches on Sunday.

The Leonas had a chance to seal their fate as FIH Pro League champions with a win over the Netherlands but a second 1-1 draw left them to suffer another shootout loss. This time it was 3-2 in sudden death shootouts. Argentina still sits in first place with 38 points in 14 games, while the Netherlands now have 23 points in 10 games. 

Over in London, Spain fought back to split the weekend with an important 2-0 win over England. 

On the men’s side, England completed the weekend sweep with a 3-0 win over South Africa. Two goals from Tom Boon propelled Belgium to its second-straight win over France. 

The second successive shootout loss denied the Leonas the early chance of being the FIH Pro League champions.

It was another fast-paced and energetic start to the match and this time a 27th minute penalty corner finish from Netherlands flicker Yibbi Jansen was all that separated the teams by half time.

It was a strong baseline run from Laurien Leurink looking for Frédérique Matla that gave the Dutch an important penalty corner opportunity in the second quarter but Matla’s flick went wide of the right post. The Netherlands nearly scored in free play minutes later as Margot van Geffen fed Xan de Waard but the reverse-stick shot pinged off Belen Succi’s post. Finally Jansen was able to slot the ball home on a penalty corner moments before half time.

In the third quarter the Leonas had a penalty corner chance to draw level. A miss hit out left Rocio Sanchez to strike and keeper Josine Koning was there to deny a tip from Julieta Jankunas at the far post. With minute to go in the quarter, Argentina’s high press paid off. Agustina Albertarrio found the reverse stick of Jankunas but the deflection was saved well by Koning. Play resulted in a penalty corner and then like a day before, Maria Granatto’s sliding reverse stick deflection from Agustina Gorzelany drew the game 1-1.

Neither team could find the back of the net through the fourth quarter sending the game to a shootout for the second-straight day. Following a 2-2 draw in the opening round, Albertarrio’s back-hand shot was saved by the glove of Koning and Sanders finished in sudden death to give the Dutch the extra point.

Netherlands’ Felice Albers was Player of the Match and commented after the game: ‘It’s a tough game against Argentina. I think we played better than yesterday. We hoped we could score the two goals but unfortunately, they scored and it was 1-1 and we went to shootouts but we have a great goalkeeper. We are together a short time and we have a lot to improve before the World Cup.’

Argentina’s Agostina Alonso added: ‘We are really happy with our performance this game and last game. I think we did a really good job and we faced a really tough team as Netherlands is. We are happy to get two points out of the weekend. Sure, we need to improve and keep training a lot of things but we made a really good trip the last three weeks. We grew a lot as a group.’

The England men stormed their way to a convincing 3-0 win over South Africa. England dominated the opening two quarters as James Albery opened the scoring in the fifth minute of play. Nick Bandurak’s penalty corner flick was saved and the rebound bounced around until Albery was there at the far post to tap in his first international goal. Timothy Nurse nearly helped double the lead as he out-paced the South Africa defence to send a stunning reverse-stick cross. Sam Ward was there but the deflection went just high and wide of the net. Just before the end of the quarter Will Calnan stepped in to the penalty corner unit and surprised himself as he unleashed a rocket drag flick into the top corner to make it 2-0.

South Africa rallied a bit more in the second quarter but it was still all England. Keeper Gowan Jones denied a Ward drag flick with the help of the speedy pressure out from Keenan Horne. Jones continued to show his expertise in goal, denying a blast from Phil Roper and a solo run from Peter Scott in the third quarter.

Late in the game Calnan forced a save out of Noluthshungu but Chris Griffiths was there to collect the rebound and bury the bouncing ball. England had a penalty corner in the final minute of the game to further its lead but Siyavuya Noluthshungu, now in goal for South Africa, made the save with his out-stretched boot. A re-award corner was given and Noluthshungu again steered away a flick from Bandurak. A clever aerial into the circle found the stick of James Gall who volleyed the bouncing ball just wide of the South Africa net to leave it 3-0 for England.

Calnan was named Player of the Match and spoke after the game: ‘Another tough go of a game. We knew South Africa would come out hard but I’m really proud of the boys today. We had a good effort to keep a clean sheet. It’s always nice to score goals and we were very focused in the moment and taking it as it comes.’

Keenan Horne, South African captain, said after the match: ‘Same like yesterday – we just started too slow and gave away too many corners in the first half. Like I said yesterday, they’re very good at short corners and again we picked it up in the second half but too little, too late. We dug deep and as a unit we play really well but we gave away three corners which they did really well on.’

Spain rallied back from their loss a day before to take down England 2-0 despite weathering waves of England attack. Lily Owsley had England’s opening chance of the game dancing her way through traffic to pull the trigger on target but keeper Jana Martínez calmly steered the ball clear of the Spain net. A tight spin in midfield allowed Owsley to then set up another chance for the home side. The ball found Shona McCallin who worked the ball with Holly Hunt but they couldn’t find their way through the Spanish congestion.

In the second quarter a blast from Xantal Gine found its way through the English circle but Florencia Amundson couldn’t get a shot off quick enough. Spain did find the go-ahead goal in the 20th minute off a slick penalty corner hit from Gine. The ball glanced off a charging Fiona Crackles to beat Maddie Hinch and give Spain the 1-0 lead.

England continued to struggle to finish despite strong bouts of possession and several circle entries. Turnovers also plagued the home side to give Spain the few chances that they needed to get on the board. Sara Barrios collected a bouncing ball inside the circle and off the bounced unleashed an upright-reverse shot that forced a save out of Hinch. England did have penalty corner chances. Spain keeper and player of the match Melanie Garcia denied two flicks from Grace Balsdon plus a rebound shot to protect her team’s lead.

With Hinch pulled and England going after the tying goal, Spain used a clever aerial to charge down the right side. Alejandra Torres-Quevedo was able to sweep the ball between two sprinting English defenders to find Marta Segu who tapped into the open net to make it 2-0. Despite the loss, Balsdon celebrated her 50th cap with England and nears her 100th international with Great Britain and England caps combined, while Giselle Ansley celebrated her 100th a day earlier.

Spain’s Gigi Oliva said after the game: ‘We are pleased and happy because yesterday was not our match and today we performed much better. We have some details we needed to improve and then we got the result. (Player of the game Melanie Garcia) saved maybe five almost goals so she deserves Player of the Game.’

England captain Holly Hunt said after the match: ‘I think we struggled in the first half with (tempo) but in the second half we did it better but we were already one-nil down and we were chasing the game. We need to focus on that especially with back-to-back games. We didn’t match (Spain) in the first half.’

It was a goal-filled first half as Belgium took a 3-1 lead and that score line stood through full time. A brilliant long ball to a charging Cédric Charlier caught Victor Charlet on the back foot and the attempt at a tackle resulted in a penalty stroke. Tom Boon rang the stroke off the cross bar much to the delight of France keeper Arthur Thieffry. Crafty baseline work from Gauthier Boccard forced a tight save from Thieffry but Charlier was able to beat the French keeper on a back-hand rocket into the bottom corner. Just before the end of the quarter a charging run from Charles Masson gave a tight shot opportunity for Gaspard Baumgarten but the ball bounced off Loic van Doren’s pads for Timothée Clément to tap in and tie the game 1-1.

A pair of identical second-quarter penalty corner finishes from Boon brought Belgium ahead 3-1 heading in to half time.

Brilliant and fast-paced midfield passing sprung Clément late in the game and the play forced Boccard to challenge just outside the circle and give up a penalty corner. Clément’s flick was blocked brilliantly by a charging Victor Wegnez’s stick. A five-meter infraction gave France another penalty corner with 35 seconds to go in the game but Charlet wasn’t able to get enough behind it and van Doren made the save. The 3-1 score line stood through two scoreless quarters and Belgium enjoyed the weekend’s six points. Belgium now sits at 21 points in 10 games, in fifth spot, and have games against India ahead.

Belgium’s Player of the Match, Victor Wegnez, said after the match: ‘I think if you look at the weekend we played much better today. We didn’t concede as many chances against and we created a lot of chances first. The last two weeks we won 11 points out of 12 so it’s really good. We’ve played with a lot of youngsters so it’s pretty good for the future of Belgium.’

France’s head coach Frédéric Soyez said: ‘It was very important for us to play in the Pro League and play the best teams in the world. It’s a good experience for the players and we worked very well. We competed in each game so we know we are very close to the Top 8 or Top 9. We have to keep working and we have some objectives in the next months.’

Result: Women
Netherlands 1, Argentina 1 (3-2 Shootout)
Player of the Match: Felice Albers (The Netherlands)

England 3, Spain 1
Player of the Match: Melanie Garcia (Spain)

England 3, South Africa 0
Player of the Match: Will Calnan (England)

Belgium 3, France 1
Player of the Match: Victor Wegnez (Belgium)