Incheon : Akashdeep Singh on Tuesday scored a fabulous field goal against hosts South Korea to guide Indian men’s hockey team into the finals of the Asian Games after a gap of 12 years, setting up a summit showdown with archrivals Pakistan.
After squandering at least three gilt-edged chances to take the lead in the first two quarters, Akashdeep (44th minute) received the ball inside the striking circle and without turning he flicked it through his legs in spectacular style into the goal to register a 1-0 win over former champions South Korea at the Seonhak Hockey Stadium here.
The Indian men’s hockey team, which last made it to the final of the Asiad way back in 2002 Busan Games, will now face Pakistan in the final on Thursday, with a direct ticket for the 2016 Rio Olympics up for grabs.
In another semi-final, Pakistan eked out a hard-fought 6-5 win over 2010 Guangzhou Games silver medallist Malaysia in the second semi-final via shoot-off after both the teams failed to break the deadlock in the regulation 60 minutes.
The title clash against Pakistan will also provide India an opportunity to avenge upon their 1-2 defeat against the same opponents in the pool stages of the ongoing Games. Earlier, a 1-0 win was India’s eighth against Korea in the Asian Games in 14 matches and was the 29th overall in 72 encounters in all competitions.
The win also helped India reach the final, assuring them of at least the silver medal, for the first time since the 2002 Busan Games. They did not make the semis in 2006 at Doha and then four years ago they were shocked by Malaysia in the semi-finals at Guangzhou.
The Indians were by far the dominant side on display against Korea in the entire 60 minutes today and controlled the proceedings from the word go. The Koreans played catch-up hockey throughout the match but failed to break the resolute Indian defence.
There was hardly any clear scoring opportunity for the Koreans, whereas India threatened the opponent goal throughout the encounter. There was plan, purpose and poise in India’s display and the major difference was the defense, which held well right through.
The midfield, with captain Sardar Singh marshalling the resources, also gave the extra edge to the attack with some excellent passes but the frontline was again guilty of squandering a few very good chances.
India should have been at least two goals up before the halfway stage of the match but Dharamvir Singh was guilty of frittering away the opportunities. India had the first shave at the goal in the fifth minute of the game from a counter-attack but Dharamvir missed a sitter as he overrun a pass from S V Sunil with only the Korean goalkeeper Lee to beat.
Three minutes into the second quarter, India earned two back-to-back penalty corners but Korean custodian Lee made a fantastic save to his right to deny V R Raghunath a goal. In the fifth minute of the second quarter Dharamvir was again found wanting when the rebound came to him off the Korean custodian’s pads but he missed the chance. Then Ramandeep shot wide on the run from the top of the circle, a difficult chance before the teams trooped off for the big break deadlocked at 0-0. Two minutes before the match-winner came another chance India’s way when Sardar and Gurwinder Chandi combined forces to bisect the rival defence but the latter’s cross from the right went abegging as Ramandeep was not in position.
But all these faded in memory once Akashdeep found the match winner. Knowing India’s past record of conceding late goals the fans were on tenterhooks. Trailing by a goal, the Koreans mounted attacks on the Indian goal in the last quarter of the match but failed to break the stubborn Indian defense.
It was a tense last five minutes of the match for the Indians as they were forced to fall back and defend. The Indians must have had the heart in their mouth when Korea earned their only penalty corner of the match just two minutes from the final hooter but the Indian defense was upto the task to deny the equalising goal to the hosts. India then attacked and kept the ball in the rival half till the final hooter to enter the gold medal clash. India’s chief coach Terry Walsh later said that though the team frittered away some chances, he was pleased with the energy the players displayed.
“We knew Korea is a very good team and so it proved. It was a tough match. We made some chances which were not taken but as a team we brought in a lot of energy into the game and continued to show it right through,” he said.
“Several of our players stepped a level higher than they showed so far. There is a lot of difference from playing in the league stage and in the cross-overs. The last time we played in the final we lost 0-4 to Australia in the Commonwealth Games. This is a learning process,” the Australian said.
Walsh said he had his own thoughts about the four-quarter game but said Indians generally tend to be slow starters after a stoppage and this was one area that was addressed to some extent.
Though he was happy with the win, Walsh said the ball handling of the players still need to improve.
“Ball handling still is not that good. We kept them down to one penalty corner, that too late in the match, which was good,” he said. Walsh said now his main concern is recovery of the players for the gold medal contest in two days’ time. “The most important part is recovery,” he said.
Asked how he turned things around after the loss against Pakistan, Walsh said: “We worked through discussions and seeing video displays.” But he also said that Asian hockey as a whole has fallen behind Australia and Europe and this aspect needs to be addressed.
S S Ramaswamy