Incheon: A spirited Indian men's hockey team defeated arch-rivals and defending champions Pakistan 4-2 in a nerve-wracking shoot-out to end its 16-year gold medal draught in the Asian Games and earn a direct berth to the 2016 Rio Olympics, here on Thursday.
It turned out to be a humdinger of a contest between the two sub-continental foes as both India and Pakistan refused to give an inch to each other in the entire 60 minutes of a keenly contested tussle.
It took a shoot-out to determine the winner as both the teanm were locked 1-1 in the regulation time of the summit clash at the Seonhak Hockey Stadium. Pakistan started brightly and broke the deadlock as early as the third minute of the match through Muhammad Rizwan Sr before Kothajit Singh (27th) equalised for India in the second quarter.
The two teams continued their battle after change of ends but failed to breach the rival citadels inspite of creating numerous scoring chances, forcing the match into the shoot-off.
In the one-on-one shoot-off situation, Akashdeep Singh, Rupinderpal Singh, Birendra Lakra and Dhramvir Singh scored for India, while Manpreet Singh turned out to be the fall guy. But all credit to Indian custodian and vice-captain P R Sreejesh, who produced breathtaking saves in the shoot-off to deny Pakistan's Abdul Haseem Khan and Muhammad Umar Butta. Muhammad Waqas and Shafqat Rasool scored the goals for Pakistan.
By virtue of the coveted gold medal here, India have earned a direct qualification to Rio Olympics, while Pakistan will have to go through the qualifiers. The last time India won the gold medal was in the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok.
The Indians were by far the better side on display in the fast-paced match as they controlled thr proccedings with Pakistan relying more on counter-attacks. But it was Pakistan, who took the early lead when Rizwan Sr scored from a lightening quick counter that caught the Indian defence napping.
An unmarked Rizwan Sr shot home past the outstretched legs of Sreejesh after he was fed by Rasool from the right flank. Jolted by the goal, India went on the offensive and but what the forawrdline lacked finishing.
India came close to equalising in the last minute of the first quarter but Ramandeep Singh, who once again looked off-colour for most part of the match, was denied by a brialliant Imran Butt in front of the Pakistan goal and then S V Sunil missed a sitter from the rebound as his slap shot sailed high over the bar with an open goal in front of him. Sparks are bound to fly in an Indo-Pak duel and today's match was no different as there was a heated exchange between the players of the two teams following an injury to a Pakistani player in dying moments of the first quarter.
India continued their impressive display in the second quarter and secured their first penalty corner in the 22nd minute but Rupinder flick was brilliantly kept out by Pakistani goalkeeper Butt. India's consistent pressure finally bore fruit in the 27th minute when a smart Kothajit neatly deflected Gurbaj Singh's cross from the right to draw level and went into half-time locked at 1-1.
In the third quarter, Pakistan came out with more purpose and started to threaten the Indian goal with more offensive display, which resulted in their first penalty corner but Sreejesh made a fine diving save to deny rival captain Muhammad Imran.
Soon Sunil forced yet another save from an alert Butt before Nikkin Thimmaiah's clever stick work gave India its second penalty corner of the match with just five minute to go for the final hooter. But once again Butt came to Pakistan's rescue by keeping out Rupinder's effort. In the last few minutes of the match, India had to go through some anxious moments but the backline held up well to take the match into shoot-off.
The gold here is India's only third in the hiostory of the Asian Games.