Stunning Japanese comeback secures Champs Challenge for top seed, Scotland claim bronze, India into seventh

Electric Ireland FIH Champions Challenge I – classification matches
Final: USA 2 (M Kasold, K O’Donnell) Japan 3 (A Murukami 2, A Shibata)

Japan is the 2011 Electric Ireland FIH Champions Challenge 1 gold medalist after earning a stunning come-from-behind 3-2 win against the United States at Belfield this afternoon.

Japan has used its speed and strength throughout the entire tournament to power into the finals and today was no different as the Japanese simply wore down the Americans to earn the gold medal. Ai Murukami was the key to victory. She scored on a second-half penalty stroke and sunk the gold medal-winning penalty corner shot with six minutes left in regulation. It was the first lead Japan held in the game.

“When we were 2-0 behind, we knew the Americans were tired from the tournament so we did not panic, did not change anything and stuck with our principles,” said Japan head coach Zenjiro Yasuda told The Hook.

USA started the game as the stronger team. Michelle Kasold set the tone early, giving the Americans a 1-0 advantage just three minutes into the game. USA controlled the ball for much the half and was rewarded with the 2-0 goal when Katie O’Donnell marched the ball into the net for the 2-0 lead.

Japan’s biggest strength was its quick counter-attack and ultimately it gave the Japanese hope in the waning minutes of the first half when Akane Shibata fired in a lightning-quick shot to cut the U.S. lead in half must before the break.

Japan picked up their game a notch in the second half and spent more time in front of the U.S. net. An obstruction call on a shot gave Japan a penalty stroke. Murukami easily put in the ball, tying the game at two with 29 minutes to go.

Japan came close to getting the go-ahead goal seven minutes later when a penalty corner clanged off the post, but harmlessly bounced out of bounds. The Japanese steadily increased their pressure and played a very disciplined game and simply waited for an opportunity to present itself. That chance came when the ball bounced off an American defender’s foot, giving Japan the penalty corner they had been waiting for.

Japan entered the tournament as the favorite on paper with the highest FIH World Ranking place at number nine. But both the Japanese and USA, ranked 13, struggled in the preliminary round, making today’s final an upset within the tournament as it pitted a fourth-seeded team from the preliminary round (USA), against the third-seeded team (Japan).

“It is the start of our preparations for pre-Olympic plan. We wanted to work on three points for this tournament, our organisation, our physical shape and third, our tactics,” Yasuda said with a smile.

3rd/4th playoff: Scotland 2 (N Kidd, H Cram) Spain 2 (B Malda, P Sanchez), Scotland win 4-3 on penalties
The bronze medal game between Spain and Scotland went the distance as a penalty shootout was needed to determine the winner. After 85 minutes and12 penalty shots, Laura Bartlett put in the bronze medal-winning goal creating a mass celebration with her Scottish teammates.

It was the first penalty shootout at this year’s Electric Ireland FIH Champions Challenge I, and only the second in FIH history (the first was in Vienna at the Champions Challenge II in the Bronze Medal Game between Belarus and Chile). After five shots, both teams converted three of their chances setting up a sudden-death shootout. Raquel Huertas was denied in her attempt setting up Bartlett’s heroics.

Bartlett nearly ran out of time as she bobbed and weaved for nearly seven seconds before popping the ball in for the winning goal.

The game itself was almost as entertaining as the shootout as teams see-sawed back-and-forth with neither able pull out to a clear advantage. Scotland got on the board first, only to have the lead erased less than a minute later. Holly Cram and Beatriz Perez scored the open field goals.

The 1-1 tie stood through the break until Scotland’s Nikki Kidd made it a 2-1 game after her penalty corner found the back corner or the net. But again, Spain had the answer when Pilar Sanchez put in the 2-2 goal, also a penalty corner, just four minutes later.

The bronze medal for Scotland is the biggest surprise of the event. Scotland entered this edition of the Champions Challenge 1 as the 21st team in the FIH World Ranking, far behind its opponents. The third-place finish is sure to bolster the team’s confidence and its place in the World Ranking. Overall, Scotland had a very solid tournament, finishing second in its preliminary round group.

Spain’s fourth-place finish is slightly below it expectations. The Spanish entered the tournament as the second-highest ranked team at number 10, although the finish should not have a major impact on its place in the World Ranking.

** Medal match reports courtesy of Jenny Wiedeke, pictures from Ondine Roche and Adrian Boehm, more to follow…

7th/8th playoff
India 3 (Saba Anjum, Chanchan Thokchom, Anuradha Devi Thokchom) Azerbaijan 1 (Zhang Suleymanova)

India’s dominant second half performance snagged seventh place in the first of the final day classification matches at Belfield, two sweetly worked penalty corners carrying the day.

Azerbaijan dominated the first half, taking the lead from the penalty spot through Zhang Suleymanova after a corner strike hit Preety Sunita Kiro’s foot on the line.

But the Indians found some spirit in the second half. They earned four corners in the first few minutes after the interval and took the lead when Saba Anjum ghosted in at the back post to tip in.

Chanchan Thokchom gave her side the lead in the 50th minute, a neat corner move which was switched right before being turned back to the injector to finish off.

Anuradha Devi Thokchom confirmed the win with two minutes left, this time reducing the move by one stage as the top D delivered the ball directly back to the injector to touch home.

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