This year’s Jaeger-LeCoultre Gold Cup final won’t be the traditional stare-down between Facundo Pieres (King Power Foxes) and whatever team Adolfo Cambiaso is on. Habtoor made sure of that Sunday with a more-than-upset 12-10 victory over a Cambiaso-less RH Polo in the quarterfinals. As a result King Power will face Habtoor in the semis, and El Remanso will take on Sommelier.
The odds of new-kid-on-the-block Habtoor dismantling RH Polo—with or without Cambiaso—seemed just about nil. Although they have gradually improved, Habtoor’s first English summer has brought more bee stings than bouquets. They lost their first three Gold Cup games and until now had only one win (four days ago over La Bamba de Areco).
Habtoor looked like a different team in the quarters—but then again, so did RH Polo with Hilario Ulloa subbing for fellow 10-goaler Cambiaso (injured in Tuesday’s game). Ulloa had spent every day since then learning how Cambiaso’s horses like to be ridden. Saturday he played them in a practice game with RH, and by Sunday he was feeling confident.
As it turned out, his ability to click with unfamiliar horses wasn’t the issue. (You could put Hilario Ulloa on a dairy cow and he’d probably still run rings around anyone on the polo field.) It was the challenge of melding into a team that revolves around the one-of-a-kind Cambiaso. While Rodrigo Andrade and Tommy Beresford were struggling to sort that out, Habtoor quickly got the upper hand. While RH Polo were still getting organized defensively without Cambiaso in the back, Habtoor seized a dominant first chukker. They notched two goals from Nico Pieres and one from Fran Elizalde on perfect 3-for-3 shooting.
RH Polo bounced back in the second chukker, going 2-for-2 from the field and converting a penalty 2 (Beresford) to cut the 3-goal deficit to 1. The two teams played quite evenly (sometimes monotonously so) through the middle of the game, with a couple shots each per chukker and neither team pulling away. Habtoor contained Ulloa on the attack, and at halftime they held a slim lead (6-5).
What until then had been a pretty much humdrum game sprung to life. Ulloa tied the score at 6, and then things got contentious. The always-vociferous Habtoor quartet made their opinions and dissatisfactions known. At one point they erupted in a snarling chorus of “Sandwich! Sandwich!” It looked like there were six umpires out there—two with whistles around their necks and four in white team jerseys.
Habtoor launched into a scoring spree in the fourth chukker, making a string of five unanswered goals all the way from there through the fifth. They won the fifth 3-0 with a goal each from Pieres, Elizalde and O'Dwyer. Their team-based attack made it supremely difficult for RH Polo to contain that chukker, and good shooting from Elizalde allowed Pieres to stay back and control play a bit more and protect defensively. RH Polo mounted a late push in sixth chukker with 3 goals, but Habtoor already had too great a lead and took the game 12-10.
Ulloa had a good go with 4 goals, but his style of play and his shift to the back led to adjustments that ultimately hurt RH Polo. Ulloa is one of the most elite finishers in the game, but he doesn’t control the tempo and flow of the game like Cambiaso. Andrade had to stay back more and almost play a defensive #4 position to make up for the loss of Cambiaso.
Habtoor were able to pressure the ball because they didn’t have to deal with Cambiaso’s skill in controlling it and passing on the attack. Their high shooting percentage made the difference and allowed them to overcome 6 missed penalty shots. Elizalde was on top of his game, finishing with 6 goals. Pieres was extremely effective at initiating attacks for Habtoor, and by doing so allowed Elizalde and Paco O’Dwyer to attack more and drive forward.
Habtoor shot an incredible 12/14 (86%) from the field, not missing a shot until the 5th chukker. RH Polo shot 6/12 (50%).
Big 1st and 5th chukkers for Habtoor (won both 3-0).
Fran Elizalde was high-scorer (6 goals). Before today his Gold Cup average was 1.8 goals per game.
The semifinals take place Wednesday: El Remanso v. Sommelier and Habtoor v. King Power Foxes.
All Photos by Snoopy Productions
All 2017 Gold Cup games are being live streamed on pololine.tv.
Complete tournament schedule and daily game locations can be found here.