Ipoh (Malaysia): India produced an inspiring performance to outplay hosts Malaysia 6-1 in a must-win match and secure their seventh appearance in the final of the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup hockey tournament, here today.
Needing a victory in their last round-robin league fixture to qualify for tomorrow's title clash, five-time winners India stamped their authority on the hosts to finish ahead of defending champions New Zealand in the standings.
India's opponents in the title encounter tomorrow will be reigning world champions Australia, who today prevailed 3-0 over Canada to complete an all-win record in the preliminary league.
Australia finished with the maximum 18 points from six outings, followed by India on 12 points and New Zealand on 11 points.
Australia have won this title a record eight times and were losing finalists to the Black Sticks last year, when India earned a bronze.
S V Sunil (2nd minute), Harjeet Singh (7th), Ramandeep Singh (25th and 39th), Danish Mujtaba (27th) and Talwinder Singh (50th) scored for India, while Shahril Saabah (46th) scored a consolation goal for Malaysia.
India's last appearance in the final of the Azlan Shah Cup was in 2010, when they shared the title with South Korea after torrential showers flooded the ground.
Watching the India-Malaysia contest from the sideslines were New Zealand, who will now face hosts Malaysia for the bronze medal tomorrow. Malaysia finished fourth after failing to add to their eight points today.
Malaysia needed a seven-goal victory to edge ahead of New Zealand in the standings, but they went out seeking to avenge their loss to India in the Hockey World League Semifinals that cost them qualifications for the Olympic Games.
Malaysia's last victory over India was in last year's Sultan Azlan Shah Cup here, when the home side posted a 3-2 victory in a league match.
Starting on a brisk note, India had four scoring opportunities in the initial five minutes of the game, but managed to utilise just one through Nikkin Thimmaiah after he was fed by Sunil in the second minute.
Collecting the ball from Manpreet Singh, Sunil dribbled in parallel to the goalline before sending the cross that left goalkeeper Hairi Rahman stranded.
India could have scored again in the next minute when Ramandeep had the ball in the circle and the Malaysians were outnumbered by the strikers in the circle, but he sent a directionless centre despite being aware that Sunil was way behind.
Chinlensana Singh's reverse shot went wide off the right post before Harjeet Singh capitalised on a defensive lapse to send a stinging reverse drive into the boards for the second goal.
Malaysian striker Ramadan Rosli failed to reach a diagonal long ball from captain Razie Rahim in the ninth minute, while Ramandeep at the other end shot wide from close range.
Razie was sent off with a yellow card booking when he blocked striker Ramandeep from breaking away on the 25-yard line and India scored twice off penalty corners during his absence.
India's third goal came during penalty corner action in the 25th minute when the push was not stopped, but Mujtaba held on to the ball and pushed the ball into the goalmouth. Malaysia's goalkeeper stopped the ball with his pads but it fell in front of Ramandeep who capitalised on the rebound for his first goal.
Two minutes later, Rupinder Pal Singh's rasping penalty corner shot rebounded into play off the crossbar and this time Mujtaba sent the ball back into the net.
Ramandeep made his second entry on the scoresheet in the 39th minute by deflecting in Harmanpreet Singh's long diagonal ball from right.
Malaysia pulled a goal back in the 46th minute as Shahril Saabah deflected a long ball from Razie into the boards.
Talwinder then rounded off the Indian scoring by slamming in a rebound from the goalkeeper, who had managed to block a long shot.