Even though Indian national coach Roelant Oltmans did a Nostradamus by correctly predicting that both the semi-finals might go all the way to shoot-outs, the Dutch man refused to pick the winner of the Asian Champions Trophy final, which will be played between India and Pakistan on Sunday. "You cannot predict a final, especially between India and Pakistan but this is an Indian side that plays best under pressure," he said. "Whenever we are down, the players create something and we are over the line." Oltmans would be eager to deliver the trophy to Indian fans. "I know its Diwali and I hope we give a wonderful gift to the hockey fans who would be watching the final."
In a way, the pressure will be more on India — a higher ranking of 6th against Pakistan’s 13th — which makes India favourites. Meanwhile, Pakistan have nothing to lose and everything to gain in the final. "We do respect India," said Pakistan coach Khawaja Junaid. "A victory would be great for Pakistan hockey but we know it’s a tough match against the best team in Asia."
An India-Malaysia final would have been a raucous atmosphere but after the 3rd/4th match between Korea and Malaysia, the final could be a sedate affair for the local fans. On the pitch, the pressure will be enormous for both the teams to deliver, and India-Pakistan matches are a delight to watch as both teams are loathe to lose to each other. Junaid is confident it will not be a defensive affair. "I think both teams like to play good, exciting hockey and that is what the final will be." The Pakistan coach has been vocal about his team playing exciting hockey "as that’s what the fans come to watch."
But beyond the ‘exciting’ bit is the need to win. After the 2014 Asian Games gold medal, where India beat Pakistan in the final thanks to heroics by PR Sreejesh in the shoot-out, India have not won anything of note, unless you count in the World League bronze medal won at Raipur. And the team would desperately want to lift the trophy they last won in 2011, the tournament's inaugural year in Ordos. Amazingly, even that year, the final went to a shoot-out and had Sreejesh making a couple of saves that won India the trophy. On Saturday, in the semi-final against South Korea, it was the Indian captain Sreejesh who pulled off the victory, stopping the fifth and crucial shot in the shoot-out.
Even though at this stage, headlines and conversations swirl around Sreejesh, this Indian team might just deliver on the strength of their forward line. Akashdeep Singh, who always gives you the giddy feeling of watching a player skate on ice, so wonderful are his talents and positioning strength that the final might just be his night. Nikkin Thimmaiah came close against South Korea and has been constantly driving the attacks but hasn’t been able to close out goals. SK Uthappa, the captain against South Korea in the semis, had two clear cut opportunities but hundredth of a second delay in the shot is usually enough to have the South Koreans cutting off any goal-bound moves.
Pakistan’s defensive structure is not as strong as South Korea. With all due respect, Junaid is no Paul Lissek. But Pakistan’s fighting spirit is second to none. Their resilience is tough to break and India need to get goals to feel safe, field or penalty corners don’t matter. Pakistan always have the capability of striking back, especially from the flanks. In the group match against India, they led 2-1 against the run of play till India found reserves, which finally gave them a 3-2 victory. It was a hard-fought match, with neither of the teams yielding even an inch.
Oltmans admitted that he was happy with Sardar Singh coming back into form. "He has been off-colour and he made a great move which resulted in the equalizer and I am happy with his performance." In the final of the 2014 Asian Games, Sardar had a good game against Pakistan, creating play for the forwards. Though Oltmans might play him in a more defensive position to cut off the crosses from the Pakistan midfield, the former Indian captain might have gotten a confidence boost after his display against South Korea. His first goal in the shoot-out showed that he still doesn’t get rattled by high-pressure situations.
The Indian defence has been strong and more effective when pressing from the back. But sometimes, like twice on Saturday, Rupinder Pal Singh and Jasjit Singh Kular gave away two goals off two errors. It’s unfortunate because both these players have been magnificent in the games till now. Kular has been a driving force and pushes his way through the midfield like a battering ram while Rupinder has eleven goals in the tournament. His runs from the right flank while overlapping Pradeep Mor have been excellent. India will need to iron their defensive issue out and Sardar holding the ball in defence could be a better idea at the moment.
Pakistan's Muhammad Rizwan Sr and Qadir Arslan have the skills to turn around moves inside the Indian striking circle. They have the snap shot and that’s what Sreejesh needs to watch out for. Apart from being outstanding in the shoot-out and on penalty corners, Sreejesh has displayed a weakness on the snap shot coming from an angle. It happened against South Korea in the semis and against Pakistan in the earlier group match. The Indian captain is a tough cookie and replays would already have been shown to him.
Over the years, India and Pakistan have played 28 finals with India winning 12 and Pakistan 16. In overall matches, Pakistan hold a clear edge winning 82 while India have won 54, and drawn 30 from a total head-to-head of 166 matches played. Irrespective of the stats, the Asian Champions Trophy will be won and held by the team that soaks in the pressure.
When to watch: 6 PM IST on 30 October
Where to watch The match will be broadcast on Star Sports 4 and HD4. Online, you can stream it live on Hotstar.com.
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Updated Date: Oct 30, 2016 11:45:00 IST