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Two tasty semi-finals await in Valencia as the final FIH Series Finals event moves towards its concluding stages. A confident and disciplined Italy saw off the challenge of Belarus to set up a match with in-form Canada, while host nation Spain will play South Africa after a tenacious display that saw the top-ranked team emerge 1-0 winners against a gritty Welsh side.
The result means Belarus and Wales will play off for fifth place in tomorrow’s second match of the day.
Italy v Belarus
The opening exchanges between the two sides were well-balanced although Italy (WR:17) looked the more composed. And it was Italy who created the early chances; first a penalty corner shot from captain Chiara Tiddi that flew wide and then a diving effort from Ivana Pessina, which was well-saved by Maryna Navitskaya in the Belarus (WR:20) goal.
The next Italian attempt on goal came after a mazy run from Maryna Vynohradova. The Italian goal machine elected not to shoot on this occasion, passing to Jasbeer Singh. The resulting shot from Singh went just wide.
Belarus for their part were playing a patient passing game. A searching aerial ball into the Italian circle upset the higher-ranked team for a moment and, among the blue-shirted ranks, was a sudden realisation that Belarus had a game-plan of their own.
After that scare, Italy put together a swift passing movement that forced a penalty corner. Lara Oviedo made no mistake as she deflected the initial shot high into the Belarus goal net.
The second quarter yielded no further goals as Italy looked to take the pace out of the game and Belarus were happy, at this stage, to simply contain the Italian attacks. Ryta Batura, in particular, was playing a strong defensive game to keep the Italian attack out of the circle.
Italy’s goalkeeper Natalia Schinoni was called into action for the first time when Yuliya Kurhanskaya unleashed a shot that whipped at hip height at the goal. Schinoni reacted fast and the teams entered the break separated by a one goal margin.
The Italian lead was doubled when Sofia Cessaneli did a neat reverse stick tap into the goal following Italy’s fourth consecutive penalty corner. The Italian side had tried three variations before a double slip left Cessanelli with the space to score.
The quarter was all but over when Eugenia Bianchi was able to take the score to 3-0 and effectively put the game out of Belarus’ reach. The midfielder was on hand to flick the ball home after Navitskaya had blocked the initial penalty corner shot.
The final quarter saw Elisabetta Pacella add to the Italy scoreline with a skilfully taken goal that she seemed to pluck out of mid-air before scoring on the volley. The goal symbolised the confidence with which Italy performed throughout this game.
Belarus did score a consolation goal – Elena Sazhina was on hand to send the ball past Schinoni after sustained Belarus pressure in the final 10 minutes.
Despite his pleasure that his side scored, the goal left Head Coach Herman Kruis wondering why his side hadn’t been able to produce such hockey earlier in the match. “I am really disappointed as we haven’t played the game we can play,” said the Head Coach. “There were a lot of technical mistakes which meant that Italy could press us easily. Also, Italy were much more innovative in the ‘D’.”
Captain of Italy, Chiara Tiddi said “When we played in the World Cup we gained the confidence and belief that we can play anyone. I think we learnt then that we need to play every minute of every game and in the crucial game, such as today, we were calm and confident.”
The result means Italy will face Canada in the first semi-final on Wednesday.
Italy 4, Belarus 1 (cross-over match)
Umpires: Gabriele Schmitz (GER), Catalina Montesino (CHI)
Spain v Wales
With 20 places separating Spain (WR:7) and Wales (WR:27), this could have been a one-sided show. The coaching team of Kevin Johnson and Gareth Weaver-Tyler and their team had other ideas however and from the first whistle the Welsh were happy to take the game to the World Cup bronze medalists – defending with courage and counter-attacking when the chance arose.
But Spain are not ranked top-10 for nothing and soon the Red Sticks were piling on the pressure and eventually the Welsh wall was breached.
The goal was fortuitous for Spain. Rose Thomas made a great reaction save but the ball bounced off a player, off the post and Lucia Jimenez found herself on the score sheet with the most unlikeliest of goals.
For those opening moments there was little doubt about the Spanish intention. Wave after wave of speedy attack saw Thomas called into action time and again. The danger player, among many, was Beatriz Perez, her devastating turn of speed left players trailing in her wake. However, despite sustained pressure, the first quarter saw only the one goal.
If the first quarter had been played at a ferocious intensity that had put Wales under the cosh, the second quarter was far more about the Welsh passing game. It was Spain’s turn to defend as Wales showed their own attacking instincts – Danni Jordan and Hannah Cozens were particularly busy as they tried to find an equaliser.
Towards the end of the quarter, a lovely aerial ball from Joanne Westwood released Cozens down the right-hand side of the Welsh attack. A scurrying Spanish defence kept the Welsh striker at bay.
The importance of Georgina Oliver at the heart of the Spanish defence was highlighted during this period of pressure. The midfield/defender emerged with the ball time and again, using all her experience to set up counter-attacks.
If Spain were expecting the Wales team to eventually wilt under the pressure then the third quarter showed just what level of resilience the Welsh side has developed in recent months. Thomas is absolutely essential to this, her calm presence and agility around the goalmouth played the dual role of calming her team and keeping the Spanish from doubling their lead. In one particularly impressive move from both sides, a fabulous attack, started by a speedy run from Jimenez, found Berta Bonastre in front of goal with only Thomas to beat. The goalkeeper saved at point blank range and garnered applause from even the Spanish supporters.
The final quarter was nail-biting. Spain were desperate to score a goal and seal the win but Wales were just as determined to stop them. The Spanish attack just kept coming, as Wales midfielder Danni Jordan described it, “in wave after wave,” but Thomas was in outstanding form and there was no way through.
“We focused on what we had to do,” said Cristina Guinea. “We scored at the beginning and we defended really well. The Wales’ goalkeeper had a really good game.
“Against South Africa, who we meet in the semi-finals, well we know them quite well and know what we must do. We will focus on ourselves and our game.”
Spain 1, Wales 0 (crossover match)
Umpires: Wanri Venter (RSA), Fanneke Alkemade (NED)
Match schedule: Tuesday 25 June (CET).
16:45 Namibia v Thailand
19:00 Wales v Belarus
Please view the match schedule here.