Asian Champions Trophy 2018: India show spunk and outstanding fighting spirit to edge past Pakistan

Despite yielding a first-minute goal, India showed spunk, grit, outstanding fighting qualities against Pakistan in a match where they were led from the front by an indefatigable captain. India’s victory was never in doubt, except that the 3-1 scoreline could easily have been doubled. After the relatively easy bulldozing of hosts Oman, Pakistan were the first tough opponents and it seemed that a nervous start might end up making it a close match.

But in not bottling up the Indian midfield, Pakistan made the first of many such tactical errors. They not only gave away precious space, but also failed to quell the constant sorties by the Indian forwards. In the second quarter, Pakistan did play to the tactic of holding the ball, to prevent India from building moves. But as the match progressed, India dominated. In the fourth quarter, it came to a point that almost every counter-attack felt like an imminent goal.

Indian players celebrate a goal against Pakistan on Saturday. Image courtesy: Twitter @TheHockeyIndia

Indian players celebrate a goal against Pakistan on Saturday. Image courtesy: Twitter @TheHockeyIndia

In the last ten matches against Pakistan, India haven’t lost. Psychologically, that affects Pakistan. Stats may be just numbers, but they are indisputable facts with a tendency to infect the mind even if the team gets an early goal. Pakistan know and fear India’s quality on the pitch. And with no variations in terms of tactics and structures during a game, it gets all the more difficult.

The only draw in the last ten games has been the 2-2 thriller between them at the Commonwealth Games. But at that moment the coach was Roelant Oltmans and despite playing an adequate offensive game, Pakistan’s defensive structure was incredibly tight.

Matches have been tight too. The two wins of 3-2 each came at the last Asian Champions Trophy, in the pool and in the final.

But when Pakistan started with an aerial which had the Indian team scrambling back, it seemed India would have their hands full. Tactically, it was a great start and then India committed the game’s biggest blunder by asking for a referral which from every angle looked like a penalty corner; it seemed fate was sitting on the Pakistan bench. India did save the PC but the rebound fell in the corner. Muhammad Irfan (Jr) couldn’t have got a better gift on the day as poked the ball in to give Pakistan the lead.

Like a champion boxer getting a count in the very first round, India appeared a bit stunned. But they regrouped fast and started outflanking Pakistan. India on the counter at times get too hasty. If their play had a weakness in the first quarter, it was a lack of patience. They had the midfield, but Gurjant Singh was either too fast or playing back in the middle of the striking circle. Pakistan knew another goal could help them strangle India’s attacking moves. India would have been caught between throwing players upfront and keeping a good defensive line.

In the middle of the 1st quarter, India had three consecutive attacks, all quelled by some quality defending by Muhammad Irfan. In order to clear the ball, aerials were used but a majority of the ball were picked up an Indian defensive line which had advanced cutting the space down to just half the pitch.

Hardik Singh, in only his second match as a senior, showed qualities of a veteran attacking midfielder. With the space available, he constantly used the mid-pitch to showcase his wares, delicate skills which created India’s first penalty corner. But two consecutive PCs couldn’t find the equaliser; low flicks that were easily defended away. With India rushing in from the flanks and passing parallel to Hardik, Pakistan were pegged back. Yet the equaliser didn’t come. Pakistan were extremely relieved at the end of the 1st Q, even though they led 1-0.

Pakistan coach Muhammad Saqlain, their former midfielder, knew the tide would turn and he used only one forward upfront. India were swarming up and it so easily could have been another goal for Pakistan when Muhammad Zubair turned deftly in the Indian striking circle for a reverse hit but out of nowhere Hardik stretched out his stick and deflected away a shot that may have caused a few issues for PR Sreejesh. At the other end, Akashdeep Singh’s reverse hit went over the bar. India were slowly settling themselves down asking the players to make it count.

In the 24th minute came a moment which usually transforms matches, makes a player raise his own level and ensures the team follows its leader. Manpreet Singh had been playing his usual role of creating space and also falling back in the defence. In those few seconds, he started on a run, going past three Pakistan defenders who were left flailing in Manpreet’s wake. As he entered the striking circle, at that pace, he sighted the gap in the right hand corner as the push went past Mandeep’s out-stretched stick and the Pakistan goalkeeper’s left pad. It was a goal that galvanised the Indian team, made the blood pound in their veins and the transformation was complete. At this stage, there was no doubt about the result. Hasan Sardar’s face on the Pakistan bench told a story that has been repeated too often in the last few years — a tale of despair and defeat.

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Manpreet, who got the captaincy back after the Asian Games, played at a different level and at times one wondered whether he had swapped the midfielder’s position for the role of a striker, at times even a defender. He made the pitch his own and showed qualities as a leader which makes one look forward to the World Cup.

With 51 seconds left in the 2nd quarter, Varun made a hash of a wayward hit into the Indian striking circle by letting it hit him on the feet; a classic case of brittle focus. But, thankfully, Pakistan couldn’t make that count. Both teams walked off 1-1 at the break.

India already had six shots on goal to Pakistan’s four but the circle entries for India were a monstrous 16 to 5 for Pakistan. And with possession at 70 percent, it was just a matter of putting in the finishing touches.

Akashdeep was regaining his space and with some deft touches had the Pakistan defence extremely worried. A minute after the break, Akashdeep drew out the Pakistan defence and tapped it for Mandeep who was surrounded by Tasawar Abbas, Aleem Bilal and Muhammad Irfan. Mandeep kept the ball, juggling it, unable to turn and take a hit. Mandeep at times can be infuriating with his touch but at this moment, he was truly inventive. With his back to the Pakistan goal, Mandeep tapped the ball between his legs, catching the Pakistan goalkeeper by surprise and India had the lead thanks to a delightful ‘creative’ goal.

In the 42nd minute off another wonderful counter-attack, Akashdeep played Lalit Upadhyay on, who then gave it to Dilpreet Singh and India led 3-1 at the end of the 3rd quarter. Pakistan looked down and out and with 22 circle entries, India’s dominance seemed ominous. India pulled out Sreejesh, two minutes into the 4th Q and in went Krishan Pathak. On his 200th appearance for India, Sreejesh would have been happy with a win over Pakistan and some good defending in the 2nd quarter.

Indian coach Harendra Singh wanted India to be patient and he got justifiably rewarded for it. He will huddle with the likes of Gurjant, who was too hasty in throwing away chances, and also try and quell Jarmanpreet Singh’s rising number of errors when on the attack.

Jarmanpreet needs to keep the shots on the turf and not move up incessantly. Twice, Surender had to bridge that yawning space in the Indian defence. Against the speedy Malaysians and the Asian Games Champions Japan, India need a better organised defensive four. Harendra is right in demanding ‘patience’ during all-out offensives. Without Rupinder Pal Singh and Birendra Lakra, the opposition’s counter-attack does, at times, expose India’s fragility at the back.


Updated Date: Oct 21, 2018 13:32 PM

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