Indian hockey's Asiad gold medal prospects take massive beating after Sardar Singh & Co lose 1-2 in crucial clash
Incheon: The Pakistanis may not have played many international matches in the run-up to the Asian Games, but they certainly seemed to have come with a better plan to make up for all the lost time, during which they neither played the World Cup nor the Commonwealth Games.
India captain Sardar Singh is tackled by Pakistan's Umar Bhutta in a Pool B league match of the Asian Games in Incheon yesterday. Pic/PTI
In contrast, India, which has had a steady build up with a Word Cup appearance and a silver at the Commonwealth Games, seemed to lack a plan and 'frittered away chances' in the words of their coach, Terry Walsh.
Pakistan won 2-1 as Muhammad Bhutta and Waqas Muhammad scored for Pakistan and in between Nikkin Thimmaiah scored for India.
The Indians were just not able to make good their chances, nor did they show an inclination to take charge, while the Pakistanis cleverly exploited the holes in Indian defence.
But then the absence of injured Rupinder Pal – who may not be available for the rest of the tournament – may have also played on the team's mind as skipper and playmaker Sardar Singh kept hanging back.
It was a tale of missed chances as Ramandeep Singh seemed to be the biggest culprit not being able to utilise the chances that came his way. He failed to trap cleanly and then also hung on to the ball a bit too long. Then Akashdeep Singh hit straight to goalkeeper Imran Butt from close.
VR Raghunath, looking heavier than he ought to be, wasted the penalty corners, while Sardar was not allowed to function. And of course, Rupinder was sorely missed in the defence.
Pakistan too missed chances as Waqas, with only Indian goalkeeper PR Sreejesh to beat, hit his reverse shot wide.
Former Pakistan captain Shahnaz Sheikh, now the coach, is a three-time Asian Games gold medallist and extremely shrewd observer of the game. He said, "The Indian defenders were a bit lethargic and we know they were also bulky. And we know Sardar (Singh) is their best player who can create moves, so we targeted him."
Clearly shaken by the defeat – India's first against Pakistan after he took over as a coach – Walsh met the media a little before Shahnaz and admitted, "We did not play well. We did not play as well as we should have. We did not create enough chances and also frittered away a few positional phases we got.
We did not play at the level Pakistan played and with the same intensity. I have to admit that. But let's give credit to Pakistan. They played very well and played it as if it was a final. We did not take the chances and they did."
Prodded on Sardar, he said, "In my view Sardar was not as creative as he can be. Manpreet Singh was more impressive."
Walsh tried to soften the blow, saying, "It was a three-point game, that's what the game was about. Now we have got a huge game on hand against China. We have to win that match to reach the semi finals. It's not going to be an easy game, as China are a tough team to beat."
When pushed and asked why the Indians did not seem pumped up and their body language was not as positive, Walsh refused to accept that, and said, "I can't say they were not as excited as they can be. You should have been in the locker rook to see that. They were all keyed up. But we made a lot of errors and did not handle the ball well."
When asked whether he was worried at the possibility of meeting hosts South Korea, who are likely to top the other group, in the semi finals, Walsh said, "If we want to win the gold we have to win against all teams." He also said the defeat did not mean India cannot win the gold and book a berth to Rio Olympics. "I still believe we can win the tournament. We need to get to the semis first and then win the matches we need to."
Shahnaz called it the best match of the tournament so far – that was only natural for these two teams and Korea are hoping to secure an Olympic berth from here by winning gold.
The first two quarters failed to produce a goal and it was in the third that Muhammad Umar Bhutta gave the defending champions the lead scoring off the rebound following Waqas' first attempt having been saved by Sreejesh.
India stung by the goal looked good in the last quarter. First Danish Mujtaba came close to scoring in the 49th minute off a deflection from Kothajit Singh, which Butt saved well. Then finally, Nikkin Thimmaiah scored off a cross from Kothajit cross on the left.
Barely had India heaved a sigh of relief, when Waqas' reverse-hit caught the Indian defence off-guard and the lead was back with Pakistan.
The win virtually assured Pakistan's top position in Pool B, while India will spend sleepless nights till they beat China to make the semi-finals. Incidentally Pakistan managed only a 2-0 win over China. With three wins from as many games, Pakistan are leading Pool B and expected to finish unbeaten in the pool as they face lowly Oman in their last match.
India and China have six points each and will need to at least draw the match, as they have a better goal difference.
India have won the Asian Games gold only twice — in 1966 and 1998. On the other hand, Pakistan have triumphed on eight occasions