Defending champions Pakistan and India advanced to Sunday’s final of the QNET 4th Asian Champions Trophy at the Wisma Belia Hockey Stadium in Kuantan.
In one of the most ‘unkind’ circumstances’ fans here have witnessed, both nations qualified for the final in penalty shootouts. The Indians ended Korea’s run 5-4 in the semi-finals shootouts after a 2-2 draw and Pakistan triumphed 3-2 over Malaysia following a 1-1 draw in regulations time.
Pakistan and India will faceoff once again in the QNET Asian Champions Trophy here while Malaysia Tigers take on Korea in the third-fourth placing match. Earlier China defeated Japan 4-3 to finish fifth and sixth respectively. The Indians defeated Pakistan 3-2 in a pool match earlier.
More than 5,000 fans had thronged the Wisma Belia Hockey Stadium here – the first time the venue had seen a big turnout in the tournament. After all, a Malaysia-Pakistan semi-finals match had always drawn great interest among Malaysians.
Fans braved the light drizzle which had not stopped since the India-Korea match two hours earlier, hoping for Malaysia Tigers to turn the tables on two-time champions Pakistan once again following a 4-2 victory by the hosts in the pool matches.
The introduction of Faizal Saari, who has scored four goals in the tournament, was also celebrated by fans. He had returned to his hometown on Friday to be with his wife who delivered the couple’s first child, and rushed back to be with teammates three hours before start of the match.
However, the first quarter belonged to the Pakistanis who had the match wrapped well under control with fast-pace counter attacks. They won three penalty corners but failed to get past an organised defence and goalkeeper S. Kumar as the first quarter ended scoreless.
The second quarter, however, was in Malaysia’s grips. Malaysia Tigers surprised the defending champions with an 18th minute penalty corner goal through Shahril Saabah. It was the only time the Malaysians had forced their way into Pakistan’s territory for their first penalty corner of the day.
The Pakistanis returned in the third quarter and won two more penalty corners – their fifth in the match. Aleem Muhammad Bilal could not get ball through in the fourth attempt but Abdul Khan made it count for Pakistan in the fifth with a powerful stroke to the left of Kumar as both teams levelled 1-1 till the end, forcing another penalty shootout of the day.
In the nerve-wrecking shootout, Pakistan won 3-2 with goals from Abdul Khan, Muhammad Irfan Junior and Muhammad Arslan Qadir while Malaysian scorers were Firhan Ashari and Faizal Saari.
India qualified for the final of Asian Champions Trophy for the third time in history. They won the inaugural 2011 edition in Ordos, China, beating Pakistan 4-2 on penalties following a 0-0 score in regulation time, but lost to the Pakistanis in the Doha 2012 final 5-4 on penalties.
Today’s semi-finals match between India and Korea was the 21st encounter between the two nations since the 1988 Seoul Olympics. The last time Korea defeated India 4-3 was at the 2013 Asia Cup.
“We had three good quarters and one bad. The Koreans capitalised on that. They are always a very difficult team to play and we managed to contain them to go into shootouts,” said India’s head coach Roelant Oltmans.
India controlled the first half, bulldozed into the fortified Korean defence a dozen times but could not find the space to beat goalkeeper Hong Doopyo as the Koreans have a well-drilled and organised defensive structure.
However, the bubble burst in the eight minute when the Indians earned their first penalty corner but drag-flick specialist Rupinder Pal Singh shot wide – a rare miss for the towering Punjab-born who has scored 10 goals in his career here..
The 2011 champions, who found the going tough against the Koreans in a pool match before settling for a 1-1 draw, finally found the crack in the Korean wall in the 15th minute through a reverse hit push from Talwinder Singh to take the lead.
Korea earned a penalty corner with 10 seconds remaining but was fruitless and India led 1-0 in the first half quarter.
The start of the second half was equally contested. Both sides went on the offensive with the Koreans picking up two penalty corners but could not get the ball past Sreejesh PR who recovered timely from an ankle injury. And just when fans thought that India would hold on to their game, Korea struck through a Seo Inwoo 21st minute field goal to level score 1-1.
The third quarter was a non-contest with missed chances and as the match rolled into the fourth quarter it was the Koreans who surprised all by going 2-1 ahead from a penalty stroke which Yang Jihun kept his nerves and slotted a low push past Sreejesh. That goal had pumped up the Indians and they chased for the equaliser and were deservingly rewarded with the clock ticking away.
It came from a well-orchestrated move from Sardar Singh inside the semicircle, manoeuvring his way past three defenders and relayed the ball to Ramandeep Singh who pushed the ball into the back of the net much to the jubilation of the Indian camp and inevitably forced the match into a nail-biting penalty shootout which India prevailed 5-4 to advance to Sunday’s final.
China defeated Japan 4-3 to finish fifth place, improving on their 2012 and 2013 positions where they finished fourth. Chinese captain Wang Lei scored a brace (17th, 49th) while Yu Xin (20th) and Zhong Jianwei (23rd) scored a piece each.