India went into their Super 4 game against Pakistan knowing that preventing their opponents from scoring would be enough for India to cement a place in the Asia Cup final. In the first quarter, India gave the game to them on a platter. In the space of three penalty corners, Pakistan hit the post twice. And twice, they had open play, sticks poised to strike home and both times, Akash Chikte came out and saved.
Pakistan, apart from playing for a victory and overall pride against India, did everything right but score. India, on the other hand, did everything wrong in the first two quarters — they miss-passed as if it was in fashion, gave turn-overs in the midfield, refused to rotate the ball flank to flank, and to be extremely critical, it seemed like India had left their team cohesion in the dressing room before coming onto the ground.
Things came around in the third quarter for India. Satbir Singh had scored the opening goal in the 39th minute, and Pakistan wilted after that as India suddenly found their pace, rhythm and speed to hammer in another three goals to win 4-0 and take their appointed place in the Asia Cup final. It was also India’s sixth straight victory over Pakistan. As far as the Asia Cup goes, this will be India’s eighth final in 10 editions.
India now meet Malaysia, who broke Korean hearts in the dying minutes of their match. South Korea were leading 1-0 and looked all set to play the final but a 59th min penalty corner flick by Faizal Saari instead sent Malaysia into their first ever Asia Cup final with four points. South Korea were left stranded with three points from three draws.
One can easily use the word ‘dominate’ in the win for India. But Indian coach Sjoerd Marijne summed the match perfectly saying it had ‘two faces’. “It was difficult to understand what happened initially,” he said. “I think when we go back; it will be good to understand from the team as to what went wrong.”
It was clear that Pakistan, yet again, came with a clear blueprint on how to play against India and at least try and win. The winning score wasn’t in their hands. But at least the intent was. They used high balls to break up quite a few moves in the Indian midfield. Shakeel Butt was the main playmaker and at the back the reassuring presence of captain Muhammed Irfan helped the Pakistan team make forays on the flank and even through the middle.
India were caught napping on the flanks, and twice, Shan Ali and Muhammad Atiq had space before the defenders cleared. Things could have gotten sticky for India if the post had not come between Pakistan and an opening goal. India breathed easy but the fluency was missing from their game. By the time, the second quarter was about to end, India had already made more than 12 wrong passes. Crucially, they came in the midfield which gave the turn-around time to Pakistan.
Indian attacks were cut off and Pakistan swarmed into that space. The pressure was constantly on India. They had two penalty corners before the break, and Harmanpreet Singh, after falling over his own stick on the first, fired in a perfect second penalty corner but the ball ended up hitting the upright.
In the first two quarters, luck wasn’t favouring either side. But it was Pakistan who probably walked with the feeling that they were still hanging in the match. With just two quarters to play, a win wouldn’t have given them a place in the final as India’s goal difference was plus four to Pakistan’s minus one. But wins are a balm for both nations. And Irfan’s boys were also playing for pride having lost the pool match 1-3.
Marijne said that he spoke to the team and told them that the fate of the match was in their hands. “What had happened in the first two quarters, we will analyse that later. But for now the match is still on and we have two quarters left so go and play your game," he reportedly told the Indian team at half-time.
India still took almost half of the third quarter to come together. In that time, Suraj Karkera pulled off a brilliant save off a Shakeel chance as the ball looped off in the air and he had to fall back to glove it over the bar. At a crucial juncture, the goalkeeper had again saved India.
The first goal arrived off a break in the midfield, from a turn-over that went India’s way. Satbir, to his delight, saw space on the right flank and darted in. Once inside the striking circle, he hit the ball straight to the Pakistan goalkeeper Ali Amjad. Gurjant Singh, who was also next to the goalkeeper, fell and for a moment it looked as if the ball went off his stick. But Satbir’s shot hit a defender's stick and then bounced over and went past Amjad and Gurjant. The deadlock had been broken.
Suddenly a team that couldn’t stitch a pass properly was playing with abandon. Rotations were happening. High balls from the defence were finding the stick of Akashdeep Singh and Lalit Upadhyay. Like the receding cyclone in Dhaka, India’s bad play was now a thing of the past; they had put the first two quarters behind them.
Pakistan, who had probably put in their best in the opening quarters, now found the pace too hot to handle. Their legs were tired and the frustration of not getting those goals had set in. On the Indian counter-attack, players were not falling back in numbers. This gave the Indians ample space. But Amjad continued to be a thorn in the Indian side. Three penalty corners — the fifth, sixth and seventh — were saved by him.
But then came Harmanpreet Singh’s long flick from the defence. It found Sumit Kumar just outside the Pakistan striking circle. Atiq tried to pick the ball but Sumit’s pace on the ball was remarkable. Atiq had no option but to push him from the back. The Belgian umpire Michielsen Sebastien pointed for India’s eighth penalty corner and also showed the yellow card to Atiq. Pakistan were reduced to 10 men for five minutes. Harmanpreet fired in his seventh goal of the tournament, his flick beating Pakistan goalkeeper Amjad for the first time in the match. At 2-0, it was apparent that Pakistan would not survive the remaining nine minutes in the match without conceding more.
India missed two more chances, once when Varun Kumar failed to trap with only Amjad in front and then Lalit had the ball but couldn’t control it. Finally, Lalit had the opportunity inside the Pakistan striking circle, and without defenders providing cover or cutting down the space, he slipped the ball past Amjad.
The best move of the match came in the 57th minute. SV Sunil, who didn’t have a great game on Saturday, did enough to hang onto the ball in the midfield before sending it to an overlapping Akashdeep, who sped into the far corner of the striking circle and then shot back to the top of the circle. Gurjant Singh trapped the ball and sent in a flyer past Amjad. At 4-0, the story was over for Pakistan in the 2017 Asia Cup. They remain alive to play the third and fourth-placing match. But dreams of a possible final had crashed.
Manpreet Singh later admitted that they committed plenty of mistakes in the first two quarters. “But I think we did well by understanding them and then playing well in the last two quarters,” he added.
Marijne said he wasn’t thinking of the final or the opponent. But there would be a challenge in playing Malaysia again. “We have already beaten them 6-2 but to face the same team and try and play good hockey would be good.” The Indian coach also said that he wasn’t thinking about the fact that this will be his first final with the Indian national team in his very first tournament.
“I am only thinking of what structure we will have tomorrow (on Sunday) and what kind of play we can achieve. Winning or losing is not what I am bothered about at the moment.” In a nation which constantly flirts with its ‘past’ in hockey, where ‘nostalgia’ is romanticised and eulogised, winning or losing matters, irrespective of the Trophy or the Cup and Marijne should realise that sooner or later, for better or worse.
Updated Date: Oct 22, 2017 10:47 AM