China's resilience to the fore

SOUTH KOREA was the favourite to retain the title in the fourth Asia Cup women's (under-21) hockey championship when it took on China in the final at the Gachibowli Hockey Complex in Hyderabad.

V. V. SUBRAHMANYAM

SOUTH KOREA was the favourite to retain the title in the fourth Asia Cup women's (under-21) hockey championship when it took on China in the final at the Gachibowli Hockey Complex in Hyderabad. But its failure to breach the Chinese `Wall of Defence' when it mattered the most in the golden goal rule cost the team dearly as the opponent picked its maiden title in the fourth edition with a remarkable 3-2 win. In fact, the message from the Chinese camp was pretty clear in the second match itself when it held Korea to a goalless draw.

The victorious Chinese team. -- Pic. H. SATISH-

It was a final, which was deceptive to start with and gave no indication of what was in store from China. For, the team was simply outplayed for the most part of the first-half as Korea breached its defence with regularity. Everything seemed to be going Korea's way and quite expectedly it even took the lead in the 15th minute when Kim Ji Eun latched on to a neat pass from the right to deflect the ball into the goal. It was an effort, which could have easily given them the upperhand. But it only rejuvenated China and soon the team went on the offensive and just before the break levelled the scores through an indirect penalty-corner hit taken by Li LI Wen. Jin Yue faked the hit to pave way for the waiting Li Hong Xia, who found the target with a stinging carpet drive.

Korea snatched the lead again when Athens Olympian Park Min Hyun, who was standing just behind the goalkeeper showed his presence of mind to deflect the ball which rolled off the 'keeper's pads through a penalty-corner hit taken by Oh Sun Soon in the second minute after the break. But once again it was the resilience of China, which startled the favourite with a series of counter-attacks coming from Cheng Jia Yan, Zhang Chun Hong and Sun Zhen who worked in tandem. Within 10 minutes after conceding the second goal, China equalised, thanks to a lovely cross from the right by Chen Li Zhu to the waiting Sun Zhen who was quick enough to deflect the ball into the goal in the 47th minute.

No doubt there were chances for Korea to snatch the lead. Eum Mi Young, after a splendid run down the right flank, ran into the goalkeeper, who nullified her effort. Then China, too, missed an opportunity when Chen Jia Yan was slow to pick a neat pass from the left. All that she had to do was to beat the onrushing goalkeeper but finally got bottled up by a crowded defence.

With the two teams locked two-all at the end of regulation time, the golden goal rule was applied. Here again, it was Korea, which dominated but missed a few scoring chances due to a combination of poor finishing and solid defence by Li Li Wen, Zhang Li Li and custodian Pan Feng Zhen. Then came the most decisive moment of the final. The Korean captain Lee Yeon Hee stick-checked a goal-bound Cheng Jia Yan inside the striking circle, which prompted the referee Dawn Hemming to point to the spot without any hesitation. China's most consistent player and defender Li Li Wen converted the `stroke' in the 11th minute of the golden goal rule to trigger off celebrations in the Chinese camp. An anti-climax of sorts but as the Chinese coach Cui Ying Bio remarked later it was exactly what the nation wanted as part of its preparations for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

China's Li Hong Xia tries to beat the Indian defence in the round-robin league match. — Pic. H. SATISH-

On the other hand, for the host, India, it was a performance not really worth remembering. In a round-robin four-team event, much was expected from the Subhadhra Pradhan-led team after three months of intensive training at the same venue. It was obvious that too much was expected from Jasjeet Handa and the captain. Deepika was effective in patches upfront. And then there was the usual failure to convert penalty-corners and that seven of them were wasted in the second half alone against China was another pointer of the many grey areas of concern.

Only thanks to the format, it had a chance to retain the third spot, which turned out to be the saving grace as India defeated Japan 2-0. It was a performance, which came too late after three consecutive losses to Korea, Japan and China.

But in the third-place match, it was a collective effort, which saw India through. First, Deepika picked the free hit by her captain and essayed a reverse shot from an acute angle only to see the goalkeeper not block it cleanly. And the waiting Fulmani was quick to capitalise on the lapse to tap the ball into the goal. In the second session, it was Deepika who deflected a penalty-corner taken by Asunta Lakra in the 69th minute, which brought cheers to the Indian camp. By all means, chief coach M. K. Kaushik was clearly disappointed as he felt that India could have won comfortably against Japan earlier. What was unmistakable was the lack of cohesion upfront and mostly the players were either too individualistic or didn't show the skills to excel in positional play.

Results: Final: China bt South Korea 3-2. For third place: India bt Japan 2-0.