Ipoh, Malaysia: India's chances of advancing to the final suffered a blow after they went down 1-2 to defending champions New Zealand in their penultimate round-robin league match of the 25th Azlan Shah Cup hockey tournament here on Wednesday.
Goals from Ken Russell (28th minute) and Nick Wilson (41st) clinched victory for defending champions New Zealand, who managed to weather the hot and humid conditions better than the Indians, whose only goal came from Mandeep Singh in the 36th minute.
Wilson's match-winner resulted from a defensive error committed by the Indians as they failed to clear the ball properly in their own striking circle.
New Zealand benefitted from the loose ball in the Indian circle in the 41st minute, when a reverse shot from the goal-line was padded by the Indian goalkeeper and deflected to the middle. Defender Harmanpreet failed to connect in his reflex attempt to push the ball out and Wilson had the easiest task of shooting into the goal for what turned out to be the match-winner for the Black Sticks.
An Indian victory today would have put them in the final, while a draw would have still kept them ahead of New Zealand. But the Black Sticks have now moved ahead into the second spot.
India can still ensure a place in the final against Australia if they defeat hosts Malaysia in the last round-robin league match on Friday, while New Zealand will be anxiously waiting to see if they play for the gold medal or the bronze.
Australia are still on top of the standings with 12 points from four successive wins, followed by New Zealand on 11 points from six matches. India have nine points from five matches and their fate will rest on the show against Malaysia on Friday.
India had to change the choice of their goalkeeper even before the match started as Akash Chikte was struck by a ball on his chest and the team management did not want to take any chances. Harjot Singh came on to the pitch from the start.
India earned the first penalty corner in the 20th minute and New Zealand's goalkeeper Devon Manchester brought off a fine save by slapping away a soaring drag-flick from Rupinder Pal Singh.
Ken Russell opened the scoring for New Zealand with a penalty corner conversion in the 28th minute. His low drag flick got deflected into off defender Manpreet Singh's stick into the goal.
Pressing for an equaliser, India were rewarded by an opportunity created by Talwinder Singh's flash shot from the top of the circle. Not having the luxury of too much space, Talwinder managed to send in a fine shot that Mandeep Singh deflected into the goal.
India could have posed a threat to the New Zealand citadel four minutes later when unmarked striker S V Sunil received a high ball on top of the rival circle, but he did not make the opportunity count and sent in a directionless and feeble cross that was cleared without any problem.
Next minute, Wilson put New Zealand in front taking advantage of shoddy defending by the Indians, and that turned out to be the match-winner.
Looking to restore parity, the Indians forced two penalty corners in the second half, but failed to get past the New Zealand custodian, who moved to his right to make the clearance. The sweaty hands did not seem to make the Indian penalty corner shooter's task easy.
In the 52nd minute, Chandana Thimmaiah had a good look at the goal and had only the custodian to beat, but his directionless shot simply did not cause any trouble.
At the other end, the Indian goal survived some anxious moments in the last quarter when New Zealand enjoyed control of the game. The Indian defence, playing deep near the goal-line, watched the ball sail across the goalmouth in the 57th minute.
In a last-gasp effort, India took off the goalkeeper to put in an additional player, but the 69th-minute move also could not help launch a late attack on the New Zealand goal.