As the Asian hockey championship heads to the summit clash on Sunday, interest is centred on who — India or Pakistan — will miss the next edition of the World Cup at The Hague: a terribly anguishing scenario for two teams who were once super powers of the game. But that, indeed, is the reality.
In more than one sense, Friday’s semifinals hold enormous significance to all the contestants.
At stake for Korea is the importance of retaining the title. For Malaysia, this is the best ever chance to win the trophy for the first time. And for Pakistan and India it is passage to the World Cup.
India is marginally ahead of its traditional rival as the fourth reserve country, while for Pakistan a top of the podium finish is a must to avoid missing the World Cup.
India, which takes on Malaysia, had a smooth passage into the last four, recording on the way a key win over defending champion Korea. Although the margins of victory over Oman and Bangladesh were high, the displays were patchy.
Notwithstanding Mandeep Singh’s ebullience, the frontline is yet to achieve cohesion. The team has so far banked heavily on the penalty corner conversions of Raghunath and Rupinder Pal Singh.
The midfield was solid thanks to the consistency of skipper Sardar Singh, assisted well by Kothajit Singh and Birendra Lakra.
Goalkeeper Sreejesh has been in outstanding form conceding just one goal in three matches.
The Malaysians’s main concern is the poor work of the defenders, including goalkeeper Kumar Subramaniam. The home team conceded an early goal against Chinese Taipei, lost the encounter to Pakistan badly, and struggled against Japan till the last quarter. So, a lot depends on how well the Indian frontline can pressure the rival defenders into errors for earning penalty corners.
History is in India’s favour, with 71 victories and 14 losses of the 103 matches played so far, with 18 drawn games.
Even in the Asia Cup, India has won four of the five played, and drawing the other. The last meeting ended in a 2-2 draw at the Azlan Shah Cup in March this year.
Determined to overcome all odds, Pakistan is in terrific form turning out almost flawless displays thus far.
Muhammad Imran leads a very motivated team all set to reach the top and retain the World Cup slot. The striking displays of Dilber, Zubair, Shafqat Rasool and Haseem Khan coupled with the expertise of Shakeel Abbasi give the forwards the edge.
Korea, assured of a spot in the World Cup, is keen to retain the trophy but has not shown its renowned technical excellence or methodical efficiency. The striking force continues to be Jang Jong in penalty corners. He should be the trump card.
With each one of the four teams having something to fight for, the excitement preceding Friday’s matches is difficult to quantify.
Friday’s schedule: (5-8) Japan v Bangladesh (12-30 p.m.); (5-8) Oman v Chinese Taipei (2-45 p.m.); Semifinals: Pakistan v Korea (5 p.m.); India v Malaysia (7-15 p.m. IST).