A circumspect Australia will be hoping to find its rhythm and keep its victory streak intact against a resurgent Germany when the two face off in the World Cup semifinal here on Friday even as defending champion Belgium takes on Netherlands in a repeat of last edition’s title clash for a final spot.
Despite several close games and quite a few upsets, the existing top-order in world hockey has remained unchallenged in the tournament with the four top-ranked teams in the semifinals, reaching in a vastly contrasting manner which makes calling favourites impossible. That each of them has won the title previously -- barring Belgium, all have been multiple-time champions -- makes it tougher. Australia had a major scare against Spain in the quarterfinals and Argentina before that in the pool game while Germany had to overcome the crossovers and a dominant England. Belgium and Netherlands had comparatively easier outings but would be wary of their toughest test in the competition so far.
Numbers favour world no. 1 Australia, who last lost to the Germans in the 2014 Champions Trophy and in World Cups, further back in the 2006 edition despite every match between the two being closely contested. But the usual dominance it is known for has been missing here. Despite scoring the second-most number of goals (24), the team has often been slow off the blocks, instead building up pace and intensity through the game and relying on its resilience to stay undefeated. “We do prepare to play and start well, it hasn’t happened so far but...that’s just the way it goes,” coach Colin Batch admitted ahead of the semifinal.
The tentative start has meant the team needed a 58th-minute equaliser against Argentina and had to fight back from a two-goal deficit against Spain and only a penalty stroke save from Andrew Charter in the final few minutes prevented the game from going into shootouts. Its biggest advantage is the success through penalty corners, something most other teams have struggled with. Against a stubborn Germany, who have made a habit of scoring last-minute goals in major tournaments and finding ways to win from seemingly lost situations, the Kookaburras will have to bring their A-game, and a bit of luck, if they wish to play their fifth final in six editions.
The other semifinal will be a clash of the oldest and youngest sides in the competition playing a similar style and having been far less tested than the other two. The Netherlands has scored 27 goals so far but hasn’t really found a tough opponent so far. That could be Belgium and the Dutch would be wary of faltering at the first major hurdle. Belgium, among the fittest teams here despite their age, has made optimum use of their experience and found ways to score around obstacles including losing its key drag-flicker Alexander Hendrickx. With little to separate the sides in style or results, expect a cracker.
Friday’s semifinals: Australia vs Germany (4.30 pm), Netherlands vs Belgium (7 pm).