The ghost of Jakarta was finally exorcised as the Indian men’s hockey team entered the Asian Games final and one step closer to an Olympic ticket here on Wednesday with a 5-3 win against South Korea but not before slipping up briefly and getting a scare. It will take on reigning champion Japan in the final after the latter beat China 3-2 to silence a capacity crowd in the other semifinal.
Three minutes from half time, Harmanpreet Singh was crowded into a corner in the Indian half with three Korean attackers trying to win possession. He controlled the ball and kept them at bay for almost two minutes, getting it in India’s favour but through that period, the stands resonated with wondrous exclamations and applause from both the Indian and Chinese supporters. It was a fine exhibition of the skills that the world expects of Indian players. It was also a pressure release at a time when Korea was going all out to get a goal.
India started strong and stamped its superiority early on for a 3-0 lead at the end of first quarter. It controlled the pace of the match, dominated the proceedings and attacked from all sides to rattle the Korean defence even before it could settle down. The margin could have been higher even at that point but for some reflexive saves by veteran goalkeeper Jaehyeon Kim.
An unmarked Hardik Singh put India ahead with a rebound tap in the 54th minute and three minutes later, a field-bisecting cross from Harmanpreet Singh to Gurjant saw Mandeep tap in to double the lead. Lalit Upadhyay connected a Harmanpreet reverse tap at the stroke of quarter for the third and it looked like another goalfest in the offing before the opposition switched gears, relied on experience and smart play and pushed back.
The Koreans used aerial balls to not just clear the ball but also open up space and move quickly from defence to attack while relying on counters to create their own chances. Two quick goals in four minutes saw the scoreline turn 3-2 with Korea attempting to earn penalty corners and making use of every entry into the circle – and they came away successful.
The Koreans converted both of the penalty corners they earned through the match – both deflected in by Manjae Jung, the second catching Indian defence napping -- while India had a 1/3 conversion, the lone success coming off Amit Rohidas’ rasping ground shot that restored a 2-goal lead for India in the 24th minute.
A 3rd Jung goal in the 42nd minute was as much a reward for the tenacious Koreans as punishment for a rattled and sloppy India in the 3rd quarter as the demons of Jakarta – where India rail-rolled every opposition and led 2-1 against Malaysia in the semifinals with 90 seconds remaining to go out in shootouts – seemed to re-surface.
It took some hard talk from coach Craig Fulton and a self-check by the players themselves to tighten the field in the final 15 minutes and once that happened, it was almost certain the toughest phase of the game for India had passed. Hardik, playing lynchpin, was outstanding in the midfield and along with Sumit and Vivek, almost controlled the match even when the forwards were wayward and the defence awry. And although Harmanpreet failed to add to his tally of goals, was brilliant in defence along with Amit. A final goal in the 54th minute by Abhishek sealed the issue.
Later Japan took a 1-0 lead in the first half before a flurry of exchanges saw three goals in six minutes – two for Japan and one for China. The host did try to fight till the end and pulled one back in the 59th minute but it was too little, too late.
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