There was a distinctly fiesta feel to Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre as first Spain and then Argentina won through to the quarter-finals of the Vitality Hockey Women's World Cup, London 2018.
The opening match of the knock-out phase was a tense and cagey affair as Belgium (FIH Hero World Ranking:13), the runners-up in Pool D, went head-to-head with Spain (WR:11). With a quarter-final match against Germany on the line, both the Red Panthers of Belgium and Spain’s Red Sticks were conservative in their attacking play, reluctant to commit too many players forward seemingly out of fear of conceding.
While excellent defensive organisation kept genuine scoring chances to a minimum, there were occasional moments where it seemed the deadlock might be broken. A weaving run and shot from Spain’s Begona Garcia forced a decent but comfortable save from Belgium goalkeeper Aisling D’Hooghe in the first quarter, while the defences of both teams used smart video referrals to overturn penalty corners awarded against them in the second period.
"We really deserve this because we did a great job out there.” Berta Bonastre
Belgium were perhaps the better team as half time neared, with Stephanie Vanden Borre having two penalty corner efforts charged down before a late Spanish counter-attack brought another good save from D’Hooghe.
The sides continued to cancel each other out in the third and fourth quarters, although the two best opportunities arguably fell the way of the Spaniards. Lola Riera sent her penalty corner drag-flick over the crossbar before Garcia missed a glorious chance to score a late winner when she crashed an off-target backhand strike into the body of a Belgian defender.
The nerves of the attacking players were there for all to see in the shootout, with only Louise Versavel and Pauline Leclef of Belgium and Spanish duo Lola Riera – converting a penalty stroke after a foul on Beatriz Perez – and Berta Bonastre finding the target from ten attempts, triggering sudden death.
The defining moment arrived after Vitality Player of the Match Beatriz Perez made it 3-2 with a supremely cool effort. Louise Versavel failed to convert her chance and so Spain had set up a quarter-final date with Germany.
"That was a difficult game”, said a delighted Berta Bonastre after the match. “We are two teams who know each other well. We have been talking about reaching this level for a number of years and working hard to achieve it. We really deserve this because we did a great job out there.”
Speaking about her team’s exit from the Vitality Hockey Women’s World Cup London 2018, Belgium captain Anouk Raes said: "In the first half we were really good and again in the third half. But Spain are very tough to play, they have a good structure, good creativity and some really excellent players, who stopped us playing our lines. We have come a long way but this is not the first time we have lost a shoot-out. We need to keep practicing."
If anyone ever doubts how much wearing the national shirt means to the athletes lining up at the Vitality Hockey Women's World Cup then they should take note of the tears in Belen Succi's eyes as the Argentina anthem played.
The 'keeper, who is competing in her third world cup, was at the heart of a Las Leonas performance that was a marked improvement on their stuttering game against South Africa in their last pool match.
Not that this was an easy ride. New Zealand are the fourth best team in the world and always bring a hardworking physicality to any encounter. And with the magnificent Stacey Michelesen at the heart of their midfield, they are a side that you cannot write off until the final whistle.
That said, Argentina started the fastest out of the blocks, with Vitality Player of the Match Delfina Merino firing over the bar in the fourth minute and Rocio Sanchez's shot following the same path.
No sooner had New Zealand weathered that attack than they were launching their own attack at the other end. Madison Doar coming close with a shot that just popped over the bar.
As befits a world cup match between the world number three and the world number four sides, this was end-to-end stuff. Shiloh Gloyn was involved in a pile-up with Succi as she went for a ball that had been beautifully played through by Anita McLaren.
Seconds before the quarter finished and Maria Ortiz blasted through the centre of the pitch and fed her captain a beautiful pass. Merino tried to play Maria Granatto in, but the New Zealand defence was alert to the danger and they ran the ball down the other end of the field.
There was no separating the teams in the second quarter as they probed to find gaps in each other's defence. There really was nothing left on the pitch by either side as both Succi and Grace O'Hanlon were called into action as the ball was batted out of the air or undercut through the melee of defenders.
The breakthrough came when O'Hanlon was unfortunate to lose her glove after a great double save. The Argentina players called for a penalty stroke and Noel Barrionuevo stepped up and calmly slotted home to O'Hanlon's left-hand side.
Kelsey Smith was unlucky not to even things up when she fired a shot low to Succi's right but the Argentina shot-stopper was so fired up she was seeing everything with clarity and she picked the shot as it whizzed towards her.
The second half was played at equal intensity with both sides creating chances but finding both shot-stoppers in great form. Considering the intensity of the match and the speed of attack nd counter attack this was a game that was low on shots in the first three quarters. With 15 minutes left, Argentina came out of the traps firing on all cylinders. Three penalty corners were earned in quick succession but foiled by O'Hanlon and her speedy defence.
The fourth corner of the quarter provided the cushion Leonas were seeking as Delfino Merino got a crafty touch on the ball to deflect past O'Hanlon. New Zealand removed their goalkeeper with six minutes left but Argentina stepped up and defended high. New Zealand were given a further boost when Maria Ortiz was sent from the pitch for two minutes. Despite the deficit, Argentina comfortably defended their lead and the consensus after the game was that Las Leonas had finally shown world cup form.
"We didn't hit our game in the pool matches," said New Zealand's Head Coach Mark Hager after the game. "No-one wants a game with Argentina at this stage. We only have ourselves to blame for earlier results."
Rocio Sanchez admitted her team had received a really tough training session in the build up to this match after below par performances earlier in the competition. "I think we wanted to play tonight, we were inspired and very determined and that was a huge improvement."
Both quarter finals will be played on 1 August. Spain will play Germany at 18:00 (UCT) while Argentina will face Australia at 20:15.