The drama began in the 57th minute, a desperate release from the top of the Indian half saw the ball being deflected into the Indian goal by Kim Juhun; the scores were now tied 1-1. In a crucial Champions Trophy encounter between India and South Korea, a match which India needed a win to stay in the hunt for a place in the final, it nearly resulted in panic in the Indian ranks.
However, merely 20 seconds later, the ball was squeezed through to the hard working Talwinder Singh, who turned into the Korean circle like a bommerang, and let loose an inch perfect reverse hit for Nikkin Thimmaiah. The latter, positioned perfectly in front of the Korean goal, only had to tap in and India claimed a bruising encounter 2-1. The win will not only boost morale but also give India seven points, meaning they are firm favourites for a spot in the final to take on Australia.
India opened the scoring with a beautiful move from SV Sunil in the 39th minute. Korea fought back to claim an equaliser off the stick of Kim Juhun in the 57th minute, before Nikkin Thimmaiah got the match-winner for India 20 seconds later.
India had played Korea only once before in the Champions Trophy, an encounter they had lost. But of late, with the Koreans getting weaker, India has had an upper hand, beating them in the 2014 World Cup and in the semi-finals of the Asian Games as well. But encounters between them have been intense, tight and often bruising. Tuesday was no different. Seo Jong Ho, Lee Namyong and You Hyosik have 811 international caps between them. But collectively, those knees now need repair. Seo Jong was still a threat, but that classical turn and burst of speed came only in patches, and moreover, Surender Kumar was always around to tackle the ageing war-horse.
It was a match of possession and a game of counter-attacks. Even though India had more than 58 per cent possession and 18 circle penetrations, Korea played a game of patience, waiting for that one chance. In Yang Jihun, Jung Manjae and Kang Moonkyu, they had three young and agile defenders. The Koreans defended intelligently and with strength and relied on the occasional tactical foul.
For India, Mandeep, Talwinder and Sunil started purposefully after an initial burst of attacks from the Koreans. But India settled quickly, not committing the same mistakes they did against Belgium. They held the ball, rotated it and forced the Koreans out of their zones. But the final touch, that crucial element in taking the lead in a match fraught with tension, was still missing.
The first quarter saw gritty build-ups, and Mandeep Singh missed a good chance when he was in too much of a hurry and missed Chinglesana's positioning on top of the circle. And when Talwinder was released by a beautiful through ball from Raghunath, he played it too long. In the first two quarters, it was Raghunath who held the defence and played the role of the attacking midfielder, sweeping the ball in wide arcs, finding Indian forwards who kept pushing the Koreans back.
With nothing to show on the scorecard, India came out strongly in the third quarter. With Harmanpreet moving up from the left half position, most balls were released there, creating opportunities for Sunil on the left flank. His combination with Akashdeep was fantastic, but again the final touch was proving a hurdle for India. At the break, the Indian coach Roelant Oltmans said, "Everything is going well, but if the goals don't come, it's of no use."
The breakthrough finally came in the 39th minute through the middle of the field. It was a counter-attack that broke the Koreans. Manpreet stole the ball off a Korean forward and released it for Akashdeep, who raced away in a flash with Sunil on the parallel. The tap was perfect for Sunil, who sped past a defender into the circle, sold a dummy to the Korean goalkeeper Hong Doopyo and calmly pushed it into an empty goal. The breakthrough was simple in creation, but brilliant in its execution.
But India still needed to close out the match. Given their speed the Koreans possess on the counters, it was always going to be tricky. India had their chances through three penalty corners, but the execution was wayward.
With four minutes on the clock, Korea played possession and, not finding space, released a slap shot into the Indian striking circle which beat the Indian defenders but not Kim Juhun who, with one knee on the turf, deflected it through the pads of Indian goalkeeper Sreejesh.
At 1-1, it seemed that India had surrendered a possible place in the final. But a 20-second turnover saw Talwinder trapping the ball and sweeping into the Korean circle, using a perfect reverse hit for Nikkin Thimmaiah to sweetly tap in for the match-winner. India played out the remaining two minutes, and coach Oltmans celebrated on the sidelines. India now has seven points from four games. Their final match is against world champions and table toppers Australia on 16 June.