Hockey Asia Cup 2017: India made to work hard after South Korea showed tactical superiority
India is on one point after their draw against the Koreans. It’s also time to discover a path back. For the favourites, it’s time to stand up and be counted.
The script was written in the third minute itself. Suk Hoon had the ball just short of the centre-line. Two channels were open up ahead. One on the left flank and the other was a sprint through the middle which could have opened up opportunities in the Indian striking circle. Hoon chose none. The risk was only one – if South Korea lost the ball, they were open to an Indian counter-attack.
Hoon kept the ball and sent it parallel to the right half. The ball was rotated to the defence onto the left half and then on the flanks. And so it went on; minute after minute. In the end, after India had pulled back a point, with just about a minute left in the match, defeat staring them in the face, South Korea would have still made the old Soviet school of chess purists gurgle with delight.
The 1-1 scoreline for many who probably didn’t follow the match on television was a brilliant tactical encounter in which if points were given for outmanoeuvring, out thinking and even slightly upstaging this Indian team, the margin would have been razor thin in favour of the South Koreans. They played to a plan. It was obvious that India were slightly surprised to find a constant wall in the midfield and then in the defence. Understanding the fact that only a win could make them push ahead in the Super 4 and a possible qualification for the 2018 World Cup by winning the Asia Cup, South Korea used their players like a Bobby Fischer would use chess pieces.
It would have been easier to dodge through peak hour Dhaka traffic than ask the Koreans to commit an error. In fact, in the first ten minutes, they hardly got a pass wrong. Faced with two Indian players, they were disciplined to send the ball back into defence and build a move again. It slowed the match down but made it intense and an edge of the seat stuff as both teams, brilliant in their own ways, tried to find a way.
India understood their game plan and did try to find space and increase ball speed. But the moment Korea had the ball, it was rotation once again; as the Indian players ran all over the turf, trying to intercept. Usually, it was errors that gave both the team’s chances. South Korea had two tries but both were saved by Akash Chikte. Akashdeep, who was playing wide and cutting into the Korean striking circle had a lovely opportunity with the Korean goalkeeper in front. But couldn’t trap and India saw a possible lead go up in smoke. India had a penalty corner and they tried an indirect, sending the ball back to Ramandeep but the Korean runner was fast and intercepted. India’s penalty corner in this Asia Cup has been pathetic. At the end of the first quarter, it was goalless.
Starved of the ball in the second quarter, for a while, India seemed to play into Korea’s hands. But at the back, Harmanpreet, Chinglensana, Sardar and Surender rotated the ball and looked for openings. Korea had built a fortress like citadel around their circle. India was crossing the half line but Korea was terrific in engaging the forwards and then softly playing out the ball avoiding penalty corners. Through the second quarter, it went on with both India and Korea hardly getting a look in. It was also good that India didn’t suddenly throw caution to the winds and start attacking. In the organised manner that Korea played, a counter-attack from them would have had serious repercussions.
The Korean coach, Shin Seok Kyo, a part of the famous 1990-2000 Korean team under Kim Sang Ryul, said that he watched the Indian team videos at night and understood that to give width to this Indian team would have been dangerous. "I told my boys the shirt numbers of the Indian players and how to play them," said Seok Kyo. Only somehow who played under Kim Sang Ryul could have pulled off this tight, intense game against India.
The third quarter was all possession. But India had openings in the middle of the quarter when Gurjant couldn’t trap and then Akashdeep fluffed again in front of the Korean goal. The amazing part of the match was that both the goalkeepers didn’t have much to do in terms of saving direct shots or even being tested for penalty corners. India had only one and Korea none through the match. Direct shots were less and India was trying to hit through the gaps.
But then as it happens in such matches, one error, that may look innocuous, gives the opportunity and South Korea took it with glee. A free hit from outside the Indian striking circle, sailed in and just when one thought that Varun Kumar had it covered, he let it go completely forgetting that Jungjun Lee was standing behind him. Lee trapped and sent it into goal past Suraj Karkera as India, like they normally do, changed goalkeepers at the end of the first two quarters. It wasn’t a soft goal. It was a typical goal that comes in such tight, overly defensive matches. South Korea went back into their formation, now pulling back a player from the midfield and at times even defending with nine and keeping a lone man upfront for a stray counter-attack.
Under pressure in the fourth quarter as they searched for an equaliser, India was committing errors in trapping. They were controlling the pace in the last quarter but Korea was standing firm. Balls were swirled inside the Korean striking circle. Some stray shots couldn’t find the outstretched stick of the Indians. Twice India went to the video replays, hoping against hope that they could snatch a penalty corner. But both the times they were denied. As pressure increased, India had the possession. With around a minute left on the clock, India was just outside the Korean striking circle when a free hit zipped in, struck Akashdeep’s stick and went to the corner of the Korean striking circle. The goalkeeper Hong Doopyo made a save but Gurjant standing right next to the upright swooped in and pushed the ball into goal.
With the equaliser in, Korea attempted one move but seconds were ticking away as the hooter went. Shin Seok, the Korean coach, said in the end he was happy with the result. “We could have walked off with three points but it was a close game and yes, a point keeps us alive and within qualifying distance of the 2018 World Cup.”
The Indian coach Sjoerd Marijne wasn’t too happy but did credit Korea with playing a good match. “I do compliment the Koreans for playing a good match defensively. They did really well. We tried to move the ball faster in the third quarter and then created moves in the fourth and it was off a long hit into their striking circle that we could get the equaliser.” Marijne also said: "Scoring in the last minute is also a positive thing."
India, as Marijne said entered the Korean 25 area 51 times but could manage only nine striking circle penetrations. "That’s where we struggled," he admitted. It’s always easy to point out errors in a low-scoring, intense, all consuming game like this. But in today’s game as the Indian captain Manpreet Singh pointed out that scoring off chances is what is required. So if a Varun error allowed in a Korean goal then chances by Gurjant, Akashdeep and a penalty corner non-conversion also decided the fate of the match.
Immediate goals are clear for the Indian team now as they have to win Thursday's match against Malaysia who beat Pakistan 3-2 to go top of the Super 4 pool with three points. India is on one point. It’s also time to discover a path back. For the favourites, it’s time to stand up and be counted.
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