If their last group fixture was anything to go by, Malaysia and Korea offer a thrilling prospect when they meet in the first semifinal of the Asian Champions Trophy in Chennai on Friday.
Both teams created ample chances in the end-to-end affair, and Malaysia scraped through by the barest of margins. Even though Malaysia faced a barrage of attacks, head coach Arul Anthony Selvaraj was relaxed after his team’s display.
“First, they controlled the ball possession well. Second was the energy they put on the field. The way they went for the tackles and fifty-fifty balls, that gives me a lot of confidence,” he said after the win.
What might worry the head coach, though, would be his ace drag-flicker Razie Rahim’s penalty corner conversions. The veteran has lacked any potency from the short corner, as have his understudies Najmi Jazlan and Faizal Saari.
With the trio drawing a blank, the forwards and midfielders have pulled their weight and delivered goals at the right junctures for the Speedy Tigers. Abdu Muhajir and Faiz Jali have been particularly impressive in venturing into the circle and finding crucial passes to create chances.
For the big game, Malaysia would hope its talisman Firhan Ashari can rediscover some of his flair from the opening two matches. Ashari displayed telepathic chemistry with the Saari brothers - Faizal and Fitri - allowing the Speedy Tigers to sound the board seven times in the two fixtures.
In the opposite camp, the mood would be more sullen. Korea has pushed its opponents till the final hooter only to fall agonisingly short of a favourable result - its last two games being 2-3 and 0-1 defeats to India and Malaysia, respectively.
What has let the side down is the overreliance on sending the ball into the circle from long distances and looking for deflected goals. Its midfield line has restored to scooping aerials or slapping rocket passes into the circle. At times, even forwards Cheoleon Park and Hyeseung Lee have dropped back to do the same.
While the approach yielded results in the first couple of matches, teams seemed to have figured out a way around it. Compounding their woes is veteran Jonghyun Jang’s inability to score from penalty corners. Jihun Yang has also tried his luck with the set-piece but has been successful only once in the tournament.
On the brighter side, goalkeeper Jaegyeon Kim has been a rock between posts. His saves proved pivotal in Korea maintaining a superior goal difference to Pakistan and squeezing through to the last four. If Korea is to continue its title defence, Kim will have a key role to play on Friday.
Pakistan looks to end on a high against tricky China
Pakistan would look to end its campaign on a high as it faces a winless China in the fifth-place playoff match.
The air of promise that surrounded the youthful team was blown away with a 0-4 defeat at the hands of India. The result ensured that for the first time in seven editions of the Asian Champions Trophy, Pakistan would finish outside the top four.
But given that it will be the unit’s final game before the much-awaited Asian Games, the focus would be to improve on its strengths. The side’s forwards have been creative but wasteful.
Hence, the likes of Abdul Hannan Shahid, Abdul Rehman, and Abdul Rana converting the chances should be a big boost.
Pakistan’s breezy start on Wednesday was strong enough to jolt the World No. 4 Indians. If it emulates the same against China, it could certainly close the game within the first half.
China, too, banks on young talent. And it is a side that improved drastically as the tournament progressed. The recovery was led by its defence. After conceding 12 goals against India and Malaysia, China let in only five in the next three.
Even while foraying forward, players like Qijun Chen, Changliang Lin, and Weibai Ao have grown in confidence. Jieshieng Gao adds another dimension with his rocket-like drag flick. The trouble for the side, however, has been in finding the net.
Adding to its tally of six goals so far would be a step in the right direction for China before it plays host for the Hangzhou Games.
Their group stage meeting ended 2-1 in favour of the Green Shirts, but Pakistan would not make the mistake of thinking it is the favourite in the repeat encounter.
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