New Delhi: India's win against Malaysia in the semi-final of the ninth Asia Cup on Friday led to a wave of congratulatory messages on social media, saying it has also earned them a place in the World Cup. But that's only 'virtually' true at this stage. To put a confirmation seal on that, India will have to beat South Korea in the final on Sunday.
Asia Cup winners are assured of a place in the World Cup as continental champions, and India would want to be that team and avoid the agony of waiting for the outcome of Oceania championship in case they lose to South Korea in the title clash. (Read details). The best way to approach that target would be by not thinking about it. Easier said than done, but a third Asia Cup trophy is big enough incentive to lick your lips about than mulling over the add-ons that come with it. And there's every reason to believe that this Indian team is primed for the job.
Just a week ago, India's defence was a worry. Now, it has become India's strength and has contributed immensely to the unbeaten four-match run, including 2-0 wins against South Korea in the league phase and against Malaysia in the semi-final. The heroes of that revival are defenders VR Raghunath and Rupinder Pal Singh, led by vice captain and goalkeeper PR Sreejesh. Sreejesh has been pivotal to India's success, putting up a show in front of the goal. Opponents have found it difficult to breach his defence, that's if they manage to go past Raghunath and Rupinder, who have combined well to cut attacks in half and at times launched themselves into attack with overlapping runs. Their defensive skills and conversion rate on penalty corners has laid the cornerstone of India's goal difference of +20 so far: 21 scored, 1 conceded.
While the likes of Gurmail Singh and Amit Rohidas have backed the senior Indian defenders well, the young forward-line never let India miss the services of SV Sunil, Danish Mujtaba and Gurwinder Singh Chandi who are out injured. Mandeep, who has scored five goals so far, has led the attack well along with Malak Singh, SK Uthappa, Nithin Thimmaih, Manpreet Singh and debutants Ramandeep Singh and Nikin Thimmaiah.
The Koreans, though, will come prepared, having studied how deftly Sardar Singh feeds his forwards and controls play from the midfield. The Indian skipper will once again remain central to India's plans to move forward and be prepared to foil the Korean counter-attacks, something the defending champions thrive on.
But it will be a new game on Sunday, and coach Roelant Oltmans concurs. "It's a new game. We will have to forget the results from the past. They don't count anymore. The fact that Korea won today [Friday] showed why they are here for. They are here to win the Asia Cup and they showed it by beating Pakistan [in the semi-final]," the Dutchman said.
Recognising the importance of this match and the awards riding on it, Sardar said winning the Asia Cup will bring back belief into Indian hockey and its fans. "The Asia Cup title can motivate youngsters who are leaving the game and taking up other sports. I hope this win can infuse life back into Indian hockey. I hope this win can bring back smiles on the faces of Indian sports lovers. Indian hockey requires the Asia Cup title," he said.
India finished a disappointing seventh in the last Asia Cup in 2009 and will want to correct that by finishing on top of the podium. But to win their third title and a World Cup qualification in return, Sardar and his boys will have to pull out all stops against the dangerous Koreans.
(Quotes provided by PTI)