The Welsh club, buoyed by a much improved showing in defeat to Croatia’s HC Zelina on Saturday, knew that victory against TJ Plzen Litice in their final group game would be enough to leapfrog the Czechs in the Pool A standings and secure a crossover play-off game with the lowest team in Pool B to bring the tournament to a close on Monday. Plzen, however, had other ideas and, with everything to play for, frustrated Penarth for much of the 60 minutes.
Despite appearing to start strongly, the Bears again conceded early, going a goal behind with just four minutes on the clock as Plzen forced the ball home from a goalmouth scramble. The strike pre-empted a spell of concerted Czech pressure, with Penarth goalkeeper Simon Comfort called on several times to keep the deficit at a single goal before the play could eventually be switched to the other end.
Phil Lane and David Joyce both had chances to level the scores before the end of the opening quarter, only to be denied by keeper and defence respectively, but the biggest talking point during the interval concerned the umpires’ shirts which, despite the colours assigned to both teams, still managed to clash with Penarth’s traditional green. It wasn’t until the half-time break that the officials effected a change, switching to an orange hue that prevented any further confusion for either side, with Plzen’s bright yellow apparently clashing with the other colour on offer pre-game.
The Czechs were unable to make anything of a brief man advantage after a Penarth player was carded for pointing out the clash of colours, despite Penarth appearing determined to make it easy for their opponents with a litany of stray passes gifting Plzen the chance to press forward. Comfort was again called into action to limit the damage, but was powerless to prevent a second goal after a crash ball into the Bears’ D was needlessly deflected back to the attacking side, who gratefully tapped home.
Plzen continued to dominate possession right up to the half-time hooter, with Penarth resisting manfully until three minutes from time when the Czechs extended their lead. The remaining time saw Chris Baker driving forward only to be stopped by the sort of physical challenge that has been a hallmark of the Bears’ first foray into Europe, while Jack Jopson – energetic on the right throughout the half – was only denied by the advancing Plzen ‘keeper as he looked to pull Penarth back into the game before the break.
Despite knowing the mountain they had to climb, Penarth continued to play below par as the third period began, with possession turning over in the wrong areas, and not always under pressure. Attempts to get their game moving were not always helped by some of the calls from the officials, but the Bears remained their own worst enemy. Plzen, meanwhile, were equally profligate in front of goal, and from penalty corners in particular, despite Tom Haran twice being sent to halfway for breaking early. Even when Penarth were temporarily reduced to ten men, the Czechs struggled to breach Comfort’s defences, despite trying to make the advantage count by camping four men in his D and forcing the remaining Bears to chase the ball.
Remarkably, it was Penarth who scored next, despite another wayward ball initially appearing to have wasted a break by Jopson. Instead, possession was reclaimed, and Tyrone Moore fed the perfect pass for Andrew Willemite to reduce the deficit from the middle of the D. It wasn’t to be the breakthrough the Vale side wanted though as, despite only 38secs remaining on the clock when Willemite struck, there was still enough time for Plzen to advance down the field and restore their three-goal lead with a 4-on-2 leaving Comfort and Sam Williamson with no chance of defending.
Chances continued to come at both ends in the final period, but Plzen proved equally adept at defending in numbers – often with eleven men behind the ball – and attacking quickly and with strength. Comfort pulled off another ridiculous save to deny a free forward at the far post, but the hold-out would not last forever, and an error costing possession in the D was gratefully seized upon by a lurking Czech forward to make it 5-1.
With the game pretty much beyond doubt, Comfort made way for captain-on-the-day Mark Harris for the final six minutes – a move that coincided with the Bears’ first penalty corners of the entire game. After two thwarted efforts, Baker finally forced the Plzen ‘keeper into a save, but not before the Czechs twice had the ball in the Penarth net, only for the strikes to be ruled out by the umpire.
Plzen ended the game with only nine players on the pitch but, by that point, it was too late for Penarth to do anything about the score, going down 5-1 to end the group stages propping up Pool A. The result, allied to those in Pool B later in the day, will pit the Welsh side against Danish opposition in the final day play-offs, with Slagelse HockeyKlub lying in wait at the unappealing hour of 8.30am before the Vale side makes the arduous trip back to Kiev and an evening flight home.
Updated 09:55 - 21 Jun 2017 by Craig Llewellyn
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