India's youngsters dig deep to shock world champions Belgium

India celebrate after Mandeep Singh gives them an early lead against Belgium in the FIH Pro League in Bhubaneswar. FIH

When PR Sreejesh kicked away Belgium's thirteenth and final penalty corner (PC) after the hooter had gone at the Kalinga Stadium, his celebratory pumped fist that followed immediately was understandable.

The Indian scorers on Saturday were familiar names -- Mandeep Singh and Ramandeep Singh -- as India brought Belgium's four-game winning start in the 2020 Pro League to a halt with a 2-1 win in the first leg of their two-legged tie in the FIH Pro League.

Mandeep had scored inside 90 seconds, landing the first punch against an opponent who were favourites coming in to the game. Belgium are top-ranked in the world, and won the World Cup the last time they played a match in Bhubaneswar.

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The reaction was expectedly frenetic, and India did well to keep their composure. The youngest players on the team led the way with their performance - the best part of Saturday's effort, something sure to please coach Graham Reid.

Mandeep's goal itself came after defender Jarmanpreet Singh had put in a crucial touch to throw off Belgian captain Thomas Briels, as he looked to sneak in on the far post for a deflection inside the first minute. Off the counter, Vivek Sagar Prasad raced down the left and cut the ball back in for Dilpreet Singh, whose vicious shot at goal was given a last-second deflection by Mandeep. This seemed the cue for goalkeeper Krishan Bahadur Pathak to take centre stage.

Belgium won a slew of PCs in the rest of the first quarter, and Pathak was at his agile best in goal, from both PCs and open play. Perhaps the best save was from a Tom Boon missile that was headed for the top right behind Pathak, who raised his arms like a football goalkeeper and tipped it away.

Raj Kumar Pal, on debut, was given the role wide of midfield that is normally reserved for SV Sunil, who would have begun playing a decent level of junior hockey when Pal was born in 1998. Though he showed signs of his inexperience by carrying on protesting a decision after India had already lost their referral early, and then getting a green card for playing on after the whistle had sounded, his composure and speed on the ball was impressive. India's best chance in the second quarter came when Pal worked a neat passing pattern with captain Manpreet Singh, and the two of them nearly set up a Dilpreet finish right by the Belgian goal.

Belgium's relentless pressure paid off with a Gauthier Boccard variation off a PC three minutes past half-time, but a resilient India refused to cave in.

Nilakanta Sharma had a terrific game in midfield, complementing Manpreet perfectly and filling in for him from time to time. Striker Gurjant Singh combined with Mandeep, Ramandeep and Dilpreet, and made sure that while Belgium kept coming at India, they knew they couldn't commit too many players forward either.

India's eventual winner came off a PC, with Ramandeep pouncing on a lucky deflection that fell his way, and that set Belgium up for another round of attacks on India. Sreejesh, who alternately protected the Indian goal, had a great game too, and his continued contribution cut off many good efforts and potential goal-scoring crosses from the world champions.

Belgium had more of the possession, made 40 circle entries to India's 18, and had over three times as many PCs as India (four). India played the smarter team game, though, acknowledged by Player of the Match Pathak in the presentation.

"After scoring the goal, we played really well. We took a couple of cards, but we worked really well as a team," he told the broadcasters. "We discussed in our team meeting that our defenders have been doing really well. We are really proud of how we defended the PCs."

Reid and the team will know that another stern examination awaits on Sunday. If today is any evidence, though, this young Indian squad will not take a backward step.