Malaysia turned the form book upside down on Labour Day by sneaking into the semi-finals of the Pahang Hockey Champions Challenge 1 with a 3-2 penalty shoot-out victory over tournament favourites New Zealand after both teams were tied 4-4 at full time at the Wisma Belia Hockey Stadium in Kuantan.
In Saturday’s semi-finals line-up, Malaysia goes into showdown with Canada who came through 3-2 winners over Poland, and Ireland face Korea. The ‘Green Machine’ Irish walked away 3-0 winners over France in a penalty shoot-out after holding the Tricolores to a 2-2 draw. Korea, ranked at World No 7, also outclassed Japan 5-1 in the quarterfinals.
Malaysia’s victory also means that the host, ranked 13th in the world, is now just two games away from qualifying for the illustrious 2016 Champions Trophy in Buenos Aires, Argentina. As for New Zealand, they are now reduced to do battle for fifth-eighth placing play-offs following Malaysia’s sensational victory.
National head coach K. Dharmaraj, said: “We played a great game to take a 4-1 half time lead. It was a heart wrenching moment for me to see the team give away three goals and allowed New Zealand to level at 4-4. I have never been comfortable in shoot-outs after suffering an agonising moment in the Junior World Cup last year against France.”
But today was Malaysia’s day. Goalkeeper S. Kumar’s heroic acts between the post was a telling factor as he kept the marauding Black Sticks top goal poachers Simon Child, Andy Hayward, Steve Edwards and Hugo Inglis at bay for a good moment of the game while Azlan Misron, Shahril Saabah, Fitri Saari, Faizal Saari and Faiz Jali wrecked havoc upfront.
The result was also clear indication of how world rankings used as a barometer to measure superiority of team’s totally thrown out of the window. Malaysia stormed to a 4-1 half time lead over the world’s sixth best team in terms of ranking.
In the penalty shoot-out, Firhan Ashari, Shahril Saabah and Fitri Saari made it count most just when the nation needed them after Faizal Saari and Faiz Jali blew away their chances. New Zealand could only respond through Hugo Inglis and Blair Hilton.
The Malaysians started the day wholly committed and gave all they had. A defeat against New Zealand would mean an end to their rather odd-chances of qualifying for the 2016 Champions Trophy in Argentina against the mighty Black Sticks. However, due to the sweltering heat as the match was played under the blazing afternoon sun, it turned into a four-quarterly tie with 17.5 minutes of play for each quarter.
Team captain Azlan and his gritty forwards fought for ball possession at every turn and masterminded counter attacks which had the Blacks Sticks pondering what went wrong with their own game plan against a side ranked seven rungs above them.
Buoyed by strong support from an estimated 4,000 fans and words of encouragement from Malaysian Hockey Confederation President Prince Abdullah Sultan Haji Ahmad Shah prior to the start of their quarterfinals encounter was indeed the magical touch.
The Blacks Sticks, however, made the first move. A Steve Edwards’ field goal in the fourth minute gave New Zealand an early lead, indicating it could be a catastrophic day for Malaysia. After all, New Zealand had made mincemeat of Japan (6-1) and Poland (8-3) in their preliminary round matches while escaping 2-1 win over Ireland in the opener.
But Dharmaraj’s Malaysia was not intimidated. They clawed back into the game instantly in the second quarter, very much determined to erase that 1-0 deficit.
Azlan started the bright sparks of a Malaysian fight back with a field goal in the 20th minute, Shahril Saabah increased it to 2-0 (23rd), Fitri Saari added the third from a solo effort by unleashing a powerful shot past goalkeeper Devon Manchester (24th) and Shahril came back to knock Malaysia’s fourth just four minutes going into the interval.
New Zealand coach Colin Batch, who must have been dumbfounded by this act of ‘self demolition’ by his payers, got his side up and running again as Andy Hayward went on to score two well calculated penalty corner goals (45th, 60th) to make it 4-3.
But as the clocked ticked away for what would have been a glorious day for all Malaysians, New Zealand was far from finished. They earned a total of 13 penalty corners throughout the match of which eight were awarded by Irish umpire Geoff Conn in the last 10 minutes of play. Hayward once again was spot on in his last attempt to level score 4-4, sinking the hearts of all as New Zealand forced the hosts into a penalty shoot-out.
Results – Quarter-finals: Malaysia 4 New Zealand 4 (Malaysia wins 3-2 in penalty shoot-out); Canada 3 Poland 2; Ireland 2 France 2 (Ireland wins 3-0 in penalty shoot-out): Korea 5 Japan 1.
Saturday (3 May) Fixtures: 5-8th Placing: New Zealand v Poland (2.45pm); France v Japan (5.00pm); Semi-finals: Malaysia v Canada (7.15pm); Ireland v Korea (9.30pm).
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