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Belarus played a strong, disciplined game to overcome a battling Wales in the race for fifth place at the FIH Series Finals in Valencia. A 2-0 lead looked to be enough until Wales mounted a last-ditch effort in the final quarter, but Belarus held firm to win 2-1 and finish in fifth position. Wales finish sixth.
In the earlier match, Thailand beat Namibia 2-1 to take seventh place in the competition. Highlights of an entertaining match were the two goals by Thailand’s captain Tikhampon Sakulpithak and the consistently good performance, under immense pressure, of Namibia’s goalkeeper Petro Stoffberg.
Namibia v Thailand
Coming into this match playing for seventh place at the FIH Series Finals, neither team had won a match and only Namibia (FIH World Ranking:42) had scored a goal – albeit against the highest ranked team, Spain.
But both teams were determined to end their tournament experience on a high and so the game was open and attacking from the first whistle. The first quarter was very much spilt between Namibia controlling the first part of the quarter and Thailand (WR:28) dominating the second. And it was Thailand who opened the scoring during that period of sustained pressure, with captain Tikhampon Sakulpithak picking up the ball on the edge of the circle and striking a fierce shot which flew past Petro Stoffberg in the Namibia goal.
Thailand had a chance to increase their score at the start of the second quarter when they won their first penalty corner but Namibia’s defence was strong and they cleared well. Led by the ever-busy Magreth Mengo, Namibia sought a way to break down the Thailand defence and create their own scoring opportunities.
That chance came with Namibia’s first penalty corner of the match but the shot was chased down. A second corner was awarded but Thailand were not letting their lead slip easily and they were soon playing the ball in the Namibia half again.
As the half continued, so Thailand began to look more like a team with a winning mentality. The players were happy to run at the African team’s defence, with Thanaporn Tongkham and Kornkanok Sanpoung particularly causing problems in the circle. The second goal was also scored by Sakulpithak, who made a strong run around the back of the Namibian circle before unleashing a shot into the Namibian goal.
The second half saw both teams determined to leave everything on the pitch. Sakulpithak came close to scoring her third goal but her shot flew over the cross bar. But, despite a lot of Thai pressure, it was Namibia who scored next. Some good pressure around the Thailand circle saw Joane van Rooyen start the move that led to the goal. Her pass found Dure Boshoff who showed tremendous strength to keep possession and slip to Kiana-Che Cormack. The 17-year-old made certain that her shot was buried in Siraya Yimrajang’s goal to make it 2-1.
“We are disappointed with that loss because we wanted to go out with a win and get our rankings high,” said Jerrica Bartlett, “But we fought until the end and our scoreline in the past few games do not reflect what we played like. We are a young side, our average age is 18, so this is an awesome experience. All we can do is grow from here.”
Bartlett’s sister, Kiana-Che Cormack added: “Scoring felt amazing. It doesn’t happen often when you are the lowest-ranked team in the tournament. It was a tough match, so scoring kept us in the match.”
Double goalscorer Tikhamporn Sakulpithak said: “I am very proud of the team. We played really well and I was very pleased to score the goals but it was a great effort by everyone in the team.”
Supansa Samanso added: “The first feeling was that we had to win that game. We wanted to leave the FIH Series Final with a win. For future tournaments, we have learnt that when we go into the lead we have to keep pushing for more goals.”
Namibia 1, Thailand 2 (7/8th play-off)
Umpires: Dahiya Deepa (IND), Ines El Hajim (FRA)
Wales v Belarus
In the battle for fifth place Belarus (WR:20) looked the stronger team in the opening stages, creating more attacking opportunities. But Wales (WR:27) had learnt a lot about defending under pressure from their encounter with Spain the previous day and, in those early exchanges, the team broke down the Belarus attack and played the ball calmly out of their defending circle. It was Wales who won the first penalty corner but their usual slick routine fell down under the strong running of the Belarus defence.
The second quarter took a similar pattern as the Belarus team looked to swing the ball swiftly and strongly around the pitch, while Wales defended with huge amounts of discipline and then looked to catch their higher-ranked opponents on the break.
Belarus continued to push and their persistence paid off as they won two consecutive penalty corners. The second of these was well-converted by Krestina Papkova to give Belarus a 1-0 lead. It also moved the talented goalscorer to the top of the goalscoring table.
Urged forward by hard-working captain Leah Wilkinson, who recently became her country’s highest capped sports player, Wales won their second penalty corner. Again, the usually reliable not-so-secret weapon let the team down and Belarus was able to counter attack with a speedy surge up the pitch by Ulyana Kasabutskaya.
Xenna Hughes was the next to show a devastating turn of speed. The attacking midfielder tore up the pitch but her cross was cut out by Maryna Navitskaya in the Belarus goal.
The game definitely turned the way of Belarus just ahead of the half-time break. A penalty corner was awarded and Maryna Nikitsina was on hand to volley the ball home.
In the second half, Wales tried everything they could to break the stranglehold that Belarus had upon the game. Two searching crosses by, first Eloise Laity and then Wilkinson, would have been goals on another day. There was finally a breakthrough for Wales, as Wilkinson was able to convert a penalty corner, but it was too little too late. For Belarus this was a competent way to finish a tournament, although there was undoubtedly a feeling within their camp that they could have played better in some of their matches and been pushing for a semi-final place.
Krestina Papkova, who currently leads the goalscoring table, said: “We are glad we finished the tournament with a win but at the same time we are not coming here for fifth place. We have to work and we will continue to work hard. The most important thing is to make sure we defend well and always seek one more goal.”
Leah Wilkinson, Wales captain, said: “This tournament has been invaluable for the experience it offered. We have played Canada and Spain and Belarus and we have pushed a lot of higher ranked teams very close. Now it is about our preparation for the Europeans where we are looking to gain promotion, so this time together has been invaluable.
And the Welsh captain paid tribute to her goalkeeper Rose Thomas, who has enjoyed a first class tournament: “I also play club hockey with Rose and she is an incredible goalkeeper. She is a great shot-stopper and she has proved here that she is world class.”
Wales 1, Belarus 2 (5/6th play-off))
Umpires: Sophie Bockelmann (GER), Ilaria Amorosini (ITA)
Match schedule: Wednesday 26 June (CET).
16:45 Canada v Italy
19:00 South Africa v Spain
Please view the match schedule here.