The Best in the World vs The Unfaulted
A Gold medal is at stake in the final of the Olympic Women's Hockey tournament, taking place this evening at 9pm (GMT) in Rio, at the Deodoro Olympic Park. The unbeaten Dutch team will face off against the faultless 7 in 7 Great Britain. The number one ranked Netherlands team are chasing their 3rd consecutive Olympic Gold in the Women's Hockey tournament, whilst Great Britain are appearing in their first ever Olympic Final.
The Dutch were tournament favourites coming into the Olympics. They are a team who, at times, are simply unplayable. And yet - a significant proportion of the Hockey world are preparing themselves for a Great Britain victory this evening. And on GB's form, I am certainly one of them. Boasting an unblemished record of 7 wins out of 7 going into the final, and looking particularly strong in the knockout games against Spain and New Zealand, Great Britain will go into this game feeling like they have every chance of taking the Gold medal.
The Netherlands will certainly not be overlooking the Great Britain team. They played against the majority of the squad in the Euro Hockey Championship in 2015, where they faced off against England in the final. In what was a true underdog story, England absorbed all that the Netherlands could throw at them, holding out for a 2-2 finish to game, ultimately winning 3-1 in the shootout.
So what has changed in a year? How have Great Britain managed to shake off the tag of underdog that they had in the previous game. Well, to understand that, I hope you will allow me to give you a summary of this previous encounter.
Simply put, it was a very one sided game, with the Dutch showing why they are the number one ranked team in the world. England had to absorb wave after wave of attack, struggling to offer much themselves going forward (at half time, England were recorded as having less than 30% of possession). The women in orange were relentless going forward, with Caia van Maasakke and the ever dangerous Maartje Paumen receiving multiple opportunities from penalty corners. And yet - the English would not bend. Although consistently strong at the back, there was something more to the team this day. Organisation and discipline in defense should never be overlooked, with this game being the perfect example. And when the Dutch did manage to find a gap in the defence, a defiant Maddie Hinch refused to be beaten. In what could be argued as the greatest display of goalkeeping the game has ever seen (and I can promise you, I am not being dramatic in that claim) it looked as if it would not be the Netherlands' day.
And then, it was 2-0. Two penalty corners in 4 minutes looked set to break English hearts. As the third quarter ended, the faintest of smiles passed across the Dutch coach's lips, unable to contain his joy at his team breaching the English defence, and presumably on their way to lifting the trophy. As the teams lined up for the fourth quarter, waiting for the whistle to blow, I realised something. England were not broken. In what was a performance of true grit and determination, the English scored two goals from two of their own penalty corners, forcing the game into a shootout.
The lottery that is a shootout took place (one in which I hope not to have to see this evening), where Maddie Hinch stole all the headlines, saving 3 of the 4 shuffles she faced, giving England the win, and in turn, breaking Dutch hearts.
This time round, the Netherlands come into a final well below their usual high standards. Although likely to tip the scales in possession, Great Britain will see a significant amount of the ball as well, looking to build up attacks from the back as well as hitting on the break. Look out for a high transfer throughout the game, looking to find an open channel, or smooth passing play similar to that seen in the Australia game.
Another change is in the Dutch midfield. In what is usually an unflappable unit, who string the game along to the rhythm of an orange drum beat, we have started to see numerous misplaced passes and a hot spot for turnovers. The dynamic Susannah Townsend has a real opportunity to control the game through her constant hassling and swift counter attacking ability unless Ellen Hoog and co. can get back on key.
My highlight of the Great Britain team concerns the constant that is Alex Danson having been joined on the score sheet by a host of players (Sophie Bray, Helen Richardson-Walsh, Lily Owsley to name a few), not only relieving the pressure off of her, but boosting the confidence of all involved. It would be fair to say that the girls in red and white would like to bring their national scoring tallies into the international seen, often coming out of tournaments without the goals to back up their performances, but it certainly looks like they begun to turn the corner.
I honestly believe this game is poised on a knife edge. If Great Britain come out of the blocks at the pace they have all tournament, they will certainly be a threat. We can however, never count out the Dutch. If they decide to flick the switch and return to their ruthless form, the game could get away from GB. And even if they aren't firing on all cylinders, Maartje Pauman can be unforgiving from a penalty corner.
This evening is to be one of the most exciting games of Hockey in recent memory. I'm predicting a tight game, with a narrow 2-1 win for Great Britain. Alex Danson and Maartje Pauman will take the game into the final quarter at 1 - 1, and a revitalised Sophie Bray continuing her form from the Spain and New Zealand finding the winner.
I've predicted Great Britain as the winners, but really, Hockey is the winner. Our Sport has been highlighted in the brightest of lights during these Olympics, and I can only hope that its popularity continues to increase at an exponential rate.
All opinions presented here are that of the author and not of Sportplan