India face Pakistan in virtual semifinal of ACT hockey
Ordos (China): Still not assured of a place in the summit clash, an unbeaten India will not settle for anything less than a victory when they take on arch-rivals Pakistan in the final group match of the inaugural Asian Champions Trophy hockey tournament on Friday.
On paper, the high-voltage Indo-Pak encounter might be just a group match but in reality it is a showdown between two traditional rivals out to annex a spot in Sunday`s final.
Although a draw against Pakistan also could see them through to the final, the young Indian team would like to avoid such a scenario as then their fate will rest on the outcome of other matches.
Pakistan are on top of the table with nine points followed by India with eight. Japan are third on seven points with Korea stationed fourth having six in their kitty. That means going into tomorrow`s games all four teams are in with a chance of entering the final
Thus, Friday`s match against Pakistan becomes a virtual semi-final for India.
India can afford a draw provided Malaysia beat Japan. The Indians could then sneak into the final on a better goal average, that too if Korea beat China, the lowest ranked team in the tournament.
On the other hand, if India beat Pakistan, goal averages would also count for Pakistan and Korea.
Considering all the permutations and combinations, the safest bet for India thus would be to beat Pakistan.
The match would also give India an opportunity to avenge their 1-3 loss to Pakistan in this year`s Azlan Shah Cup in Ipoh, Malaysia.
And expectedly, India coach Michael Nobbs mince no words when he said that there would be huge pressure on his wards in Friday`s game.
"For me as a coach, this is the first opportunity to play against Pakistan and that is really exciting. But for the team it is a big step. There is going to be huge pressure and it would be interesting to see how the boys cope with it," he said.
"It`s all about the young boys. It`s a dream match for them and then if you win the reward is a place in the final. I won`t be way of the mark if I say nobody gave us a chance of even being in the reckoning. So for the team and the boys, it`s a great moment," Nobbs added.
India, at the moment, are unbeaten in the tournament with two draws and two wins.
But pressure and inexperience has already played a role in the tournament for the Indians, especially against Japan and Malaysia where the defence crumbled in the dying minutes of the matches.
Against Japan, the Indians conceded a last-minute equaliser and against Malaysia they threw away a goal lead and then had to fight hard to secure a 2-2 draw.
Although India`s form has fluctuated in the tournament so far, but to not lose a game is an achievement considering teams like Korea have lost twice while Pakistan once.
But apart from inexperience, Nobbs` main concern going into the match would be penalty corner conversion. India have earned short corners at will in the event but the conversion rate has been below par.
And the Australian would be looking forward to his two ace drag-flickers -- Rupinder Pal Singh and V Raghunath – to deliver the goods tomorrow.
Both India and Pakistan have gone through wholesale changes and have come here with a young and relatively inexperienced teams.
India are without six of their regular players. While Sardara Singh and Sandeep Singh have been banned for two years for indiscipline, star players like Tushar Khandekar, Shivendra Singh and Arjun Halappa are injured.
For India Gurwinder Singh Chandi, Danish Mujtaba, Yuvraj Walmiki, Sarvanjit Singh and Vikas Sharma are all green horns but have shown great promise.
The good thing for the erstwhile hockey giants is that right-half Gurbaj Singh is in tremendous form and he will have to play a vital role tomorrow if India desire to get past Pakistan.
Pakistan has also come here without two of its key players -- veteran penalty corner specialist Sohail Abbas and striker Rehan Butt.
However, in veteran Wasim Ahmed and Shakeel Abbasi, the Pakistanis have plenty of experience in their squad.
Pakistan also boast of a strong forward line in Muhammad Waqas, Muhammad Rizwan and Mohammed Tousiq and holding them together would be veteran Abbasi.
Pakistan coach Ajmal Khan also refused to give over-importance to the encounter, saying, "It`s just another match."
Irrespective of the importance of the match, one thing fans can be sure of is that both the teams will play attacking and free-flowing hockey.
In terms of statistics, Pakistan hold edge over their rivals. Out of 147 matches between the two teams, India have won only 48, drawn 24 and lost 75 times.
The Indians have scored 278 and conceded 347 goals against Pakistan.