After India beat China 2-1 at the Asian Champions Trophy in Ranchi on Monday, head coach Janneke Schopman gave Salima Tete a bear hug. The 21-year-old stood there with the player of the match award in her hand, receiving her coach’s adulation. The Simdega speedster’s goal was the difference between the two teams in the end in an intense battle that India won to confirm their place in the semifinals.
Deepika (15′) and Salima (26′) scored for India in the first half, while Jiaqi Zhong (41′) brought China back in the second in a match of two halves. And one of the keys to India’s win was how well Salima played through the middle. The player known for her blistering pace, with the strength in the legs that was built up through the days of playing barefoot in the mud fields as a kid, usually plays on the wings for India. But in Ranchi, coach Schopman has asked her to switch to the centre. Reluctant though she is, the win against China saw Schopman beam with a ‘I-told-you-so’ hidden behind her smile.
Having weathered a brief storm from China in the second quarter, India doubled their lead before half time and once again, it was the Simdega combination that did the trick.
This time, Sangita Kumari forced a turnover high up the pitch with her pressing that Schopman had highlighted already. Salima, from that central position high up, gathered the stray ball and unleashed a powerful reverse hit that thudded into the board. It was one of the many impressive moments she had through the middle of the field.
“Salima is a very good player but she always wants to play on the side,” Schopman said after the match. “But I tell her, if you are in the middle, you can go wherever you want to with your speed. She had a great game, I know she can play very well there. We need her there this tournament, because I want to try her centrally, I hope this is what she needs to show all the time that she can be a real threat for us in the midfield.”
“I didn’t like it at the beginning,” Salima says with a sheepish smile when asked about the move inward from the flanks. “I don’t really like it but the coach tells me that I can play in this position well so I should try it. And this will help the team, and today it worked. Yeah, I will try playing through this position more.”
Right from the pushback, it was evident this was going to be a punch-counterpunch sort of night. While India played with purpose and intensity, their possession didn’t result in clear-cut chances as the moves broke down in the final third. China’s problems were similar too.
It wasn’t until the final last two minutes in the opening quarter that the first real attacking threat came as Jyothi won the ball back high up and India forced a Penalty Corner. But as has been the trend, the ball was mistrapped. The breakthrough eventually came at the end of the first quarter. Sangita showed another moment of brilliance down the right flank that created a goalmouth scramble, leading to a penalty stroke. With the capacity crowd chanting ‘India, India’, Deepika converted from the spot.
China started the second quarter on the front foot and Savita Punia – who has been barely made to work so far in the tournament – had to be alert to save a lifted shot from close range. Ishika Chaudhary prevented another promising China move as the momentum started to shift. A green card for Lalremsiami saw India go down to 10 but they managed that phase of the game quite well, with Salima showing some wonderful ball control again in the centre of the park.
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Early in the second half, Savita was called into action twice more. The pressure was increasing as China forced a PC to pull one back. China executed a variation and Jiaqi Zhong scored through a powerful flick past Savita.
With India looking like they needed inspiration, Salima provided a burst of pace down the right to fire up the crowd as the third quarter came to a close. In the final 15, with everything to play for, India produced their best attacking move in a while with Baljeet going on a fine run down the right before Navneet and Salima centrally combined, but the final pass was missing.
Play was halted for a while in the final quarter due to a floodlight issue at the venue and from the restart China were inches away from equalising. India were under pressure with Vandana shown a yellow card in the end and China took their goalkeeper off. Coach Schopman felt China, too, should have been down to 10. India missed a chance to put the match to bed in the end through a counter, but did enough to hang on.