Incheon: Intricacies of South Asian style of hockey will be on full view here on Thursday when a resurgent India take on bitter foes Pakistan in the high-octane men’s Asian Games gold medal match, with a direct entry into the 2016 Rio Olympics up for grabs for the winners.
The match, similar to the one that was witnessed in the league phase which India lost 1-2 to Pakistan, promises severe intensity and no-hold-barred rivalry in front of vociferous flag-waving supporters of both the countries, for whom this is going to be the high point of the fortnight-long Games.
India and Pakistan had last played in the men’s hockey final at the quadrennial continental games way back in 1982 at New Delhi’s Dhyan Chand Stadium when the latter emerged with a shock 7-1 verdict after which the then goalkeeper Mir Ranjan Negi and the panicky deep defense was castigated.
The two South Asian giants have not met in the final of these Games after that wintry day on December 1 following the emergence of South Korea as a big force.
Thursday’s game would only be India and Pakistan’s eighth summit clash at the Asian Games out of which India have won only twice, the last of the triumphs coming way back in 1966 Bangkok Games.
It is going to be a nerve-wracking contest between the two arch-rivals and the team which plays better under severe pressure is expected to lift the coveted gold.
Once only after 1982, had Pakistan and India took the 1-2 positions at these Games, in 1990 at Beijing when the tournament was played on a round-robin basis. Pakistan emerged with the gold in that edition after topping the table with a 3-2 verdict over India.
India are seeking to clinch the gold medal that they last grabbed in 1998 at Bangkok when the mercurial Dhanraj Pillay led the team from the front.
Two-time gold medal winners India had last entered the summit clash in 2002 at Busan, only to end on the losing side with a 3-4 defeat to hosts Korea. They have never made it to the gold medal contest since then and Tuesday’s 1-0 semi-final victory over Korea has once again put them back in the reckoning for gold after 12 years.
Pakistan, on the other hand, are the defending champions who are gunning for their ninth gold in the competition since 1958 when hockey made its debut in Tokyo.
A lot is at stake for both teams, apart from the highest honour of clinching the gold, and the match is expected to be a humdinger. In their previous contest in the pool stages here, Pakistan looked to be the better side – combining well in the attack and defending resolutely though the Indian front-liners were guilty of wasting a few gold-tinged chances.
The Terry Walsh-coached Indians had recovered well to find more intensity in attack and more purpose in midfield play, but there is still vast scope for improvement in ball handling skills.
“We knew Korea is a very good team and so it proved. It was a tough match. We made some chances which were not taken but as a team we brought in a lot of energy into the game and continued to show it right through. (However), Ball handling still is not that good,” Walsh had said after Akashdeep Singh scored a brilliant field goal to earn the hard-fought win over Korea.
Akashdeep flicked the ball through his legs with his back to the goal which was least expected by the Korean goalkeeper to notch his second strike in the competition. This sort of creative play will certainly come in handy against a top-side like Pakistan who possess some very good dribblers and a superb play-maker in Shafqat Rasool.
On Tuesday, India captain Sardar Singh and Manpreet Singh were very good in the midfield which made the attack look more potent than it had done against Pakistan a week ago when the skipper looked a bit below par.
Sardar would once again be the fulcrum at centre half and hope to create more chances for the forwardline, which is still to fire in the tournament. The Indian strikers failed to live upto their expectations so far in the tournament, wasting numerous scoring opportunities.
The defense, however, held up quite well by bottling up the major threats from Korea, so much so that the four-time gold medal winners could earn only a single penalty corner in the match and that too was deflected to safety by an Indian defender with his stick.
The team would again be looking forward to a stand-out performance from its backline backed up by the ever-reliable P R Sreejesh under the Indian goal. The encouraging sign for India was the return to duty of injured drag-flick expert Rupinderpal Singh, who was fielded for the first time on Tuesday since picking up an injury in the second game against Oman.
His presence would certainly increase the chances of scoring via set-piece situations. Pakistan, too, have a speedy set of goal poachers, apart from penalty corner hitters in captain Imran Muhammad and Irfan Muhammad. Leading the list of field goal scorers is Mohammed Umar Bhutta who notched one of the two strikes against India.
Pakistan too have a good goalkeeper in Imran Butt, who saved their day against Malaysia in the second semi-final with a splendid display in the penalty shoot-out.
Come Thursday, Butt too would be charged up to deny the Indian attackers who need to be at their sharpest to shoot down the elusive gold and end the country’s more than decade-long wait for the coveted honour.