S. Thyagarajan

IPOH: India is just a step away from a spot in Sunday's final.

A win over Egypt is mandatory on Saturday. However, there is a touch of anxiety whether the defending champion can put aside the humiliation suffered against Malaysia in a needle match of the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup hockey tournament on Wednesday.

The configuration on the eve of deciding the finalists is intriguing. Assuming India wins by the narrowest of margins, identifying its opponent for the title fight is poised to an interesting finish.

The possibilities

Malaysia is on top of the table with 11 points. There are three teams —Australia, Korea and Pakistan — capable of reaching 11 points, leaving the issue to be resolved either through goal difference or goal aggregate or even the result of a match.

As for India, a victory is possible provided the team casts aside the depression arising out of the defeat against Malaysia. Egypt is at the bottom of the table with no points, having conceded 26 goals and scoring just three.

Of the 18 matches played so far against the African outfit, India has won 16 and drawn two, the last coming in the same tournament last year. A draw on Saturday might prove a disaster as India's goal difference is just one. A win will put the issue beyond doubt as India will reach 13 points.

India's biggest concern is the vulnerable defenders. They tend to be very tentative and often invite pressure through their lack of imagination inside the circle.

Everything rests on the work of the midfield where Halappa excels invariably with good support from Gurbaj on the right and Prabodh Tirkey on the left. Bharat Chikkara and Vikas Pillay have been doing their bit appreciably.

How well the trio of Tushar, Shivendra and Rajpal Singh clicks in the crucial match would be watched with interest. With the conversion of penalty corners pathetic thus far, there is no alternative for the team except to rely on field goals from the experienced players.

Seize the initiative

With Mandeep Antil and Danish Mujtaba slowly finding their rhythm, it depends on how quickly India takes the initiative and seals the match in the initial stages.

The Egyptians are robust and brusque in their approach. They can slot in a goal or two if they are allowed space inside the zone without proper marking.

That the final set of matches on Saturday hold the key to spotting the contenders for the crown proves how open the competition has been from day one.

The standings (read as played, won, drawn, lost, goals scored, goals conceded, points): Malaysia 6-3-2-1-17-9-11; India 5-3-1-1-14-13-10; Korea 5-2-2-1-16-9-8; Pakistan 5-2-2-1-22-16-8; Australia 5-2-2-1-16-11-8; China 5-1-1-3-15-4; Egypt 5-0-0-5-3-26-0.

Saturday's matches: Australia v China (1.35 p.m.); Korea v Pakistan (3.35 p.m.); India v Egypt (5.35 p.m.), all times IST .

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