It's crunch time for Big Four

Hockey: Germany take on England; Australia face Netherlands in WC semis

It's crunch time for Big Four

The German Wall: Champions Germany, the lone undefeated team in the World Cup, will have a tough task against England in semis on Thursday.  AFP

It’s England against Germany and Australia versus the Netherlands – both potentially explosive encounters in a tournament that has not really produced fireworks expected at this level.

Out of the 29 matches so far, only a handful could be termed exciting, but things could well change on Thursday at the Major Dhyanchand National Stadium, with the stakes pegged at a higher level.

There are reputations to be made and protected in the final sprint to the tape and viewed from that angle alone, no team has more at stake than Germany among the final four.

Olympic champions and two-time world champions, the Germans have come with a young team eager to prove itself on the big stage.  They have done their reputation no harm thus far, being the only unbeaten team in the tournament. They have improved with every game, though their style of play may not please the purists.

Hard hits into the striking circle and opportunistic deflections have been the German method, helping them wriggle out of tight situations every time. Max Muller in defence and Matt Witthaus in the midfield have inspired the youngsters who have combined well to form a formidable unit.

Muller, the captain, had played down his team’s chances at the start of the tournament but after a successful league phase, he was looking forward to the big clash. “England is a strong team and their defence is pretty good. But our strength has been our team work and we will be relying on it again,” said the German captain.

England came here as the European champions – having beaten Germany in the final there -- and have done no harm to their reputation with some impressive displays, starting with the win over Australia in the first match.

But injuries have hit them hard, with Richard Mantell’s absence weakening their defence as well as their penalty corner strikes.

Ashley Jackson, who has been an impressive presence with five goals so far, stepped into the breach with a good result against India and he will most likely don the same role against Germany. But their defence will have to cut off the firm German hits to stay clear of danger. The form of goalkeeper James Fair will certainly be heartening in the context.

Aussies favourites
Australia are the only outsiders in a summit of European powerhouses but it will be surprising if anyone manages to stop them from having their say. The way they recovered after the defeat in the opening match was stunning to say the least. Their pace and quick passes have flummoxed the defenders and the Netherlands certainly won’t have it easy in the second semifinal. Inspired by Jamie Dwyer, the World Player of the Year, the Aussies have had men for every occasion, with the likes of Glenn Turner, Desmond Abbott and Matthew Butturini delivering the goods in style. “The real competition starts now,” said Dwyer. “If we play well, we will be hard to beat. We have played against the Netherlands many times and have a good record. So that is an advantage,” said Dwyer. Three-time champions the Netherlands, an experienced team with attacking instincts, haven’t really hit the straps so far. Teun de Nooijer has sparkled in patches but the frontline hasn’t functioned as well as the captain would have liked it to, leading to defeat in their game against Korea.

The clash also pits two of the top penalty corner hitters in the world, with the experienced Taeke Taekema up against Australia’s rising star Like Doerner. Both have scored six goals so far and their form will matter greatly in the do-or-die battle. “The semifinal is always a difficult game but we are confident of doing well,” said De Nooijer. The Netherlands, certainly, needs tons of inspiration from their captain if they are to advance to their fifth final.

Today’s action
Thursday’s matches.
* 11-12: Pakistan vs Canada (3.35 pm).
* Semifinal: England vs Germany (6.05 pm).
* Semifinal: Australia vs Netherlands (8.35 pm).
Matches live on TEN Sports

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