Vinaya's late goal stuns Karnataka

Air India scrape past Raghunaths men in an ill-tempered tie to set up title clash with Punjab

Air India staged a remarkable late coup to stun hosts Karnataka in an ill-tempered encounter and storm into the final of the Senior National hockey championship here on Sunday.

Appearing down and out after being outplayed by the spirited hosts for the better part of the semifinal contest, Air India rode on their luck and will to script a sensational turnaround, exacting revenge for last year’s quarterfinal defeat with a 3-2 victory at the KSHA stadium.

Sadly, the damage for the hosts was caused by home-grown players Arjun Halappa and VS Vinaya. While the former struck twice from the spot -- the first penalty stroke being a contentious one -- the latter scored from virtually the last shot of the match to spark of wild celebrations in the Air India camp.

In the final clash on Tuesday, Air India will lock horns with Punjab, who dethroned champions Haryana 4-1 in commanding fashion. Gurjinder Singh once again sparkled with his drag-flicks, scoring a brace while Sarvanjit Singh and Satbir Singh scored one apiece as Punjab notched up a suprisingly comfortable win. Karnataka, however, must consider themselves unlucky not be fighting against Punjab in the grand finale. Faster and fitter in comparison to Air India who had lot of seasoned campaigners in their pack, the youthful hosts dictated terms from the onset. Although the clash had a lot of undercurrents flowing following last year’s bitter battle where Karnataka’s Vikram Kanth collided into Shivendra Singh that resulted in a broken collar bone for the India striker, the hosts appeared hardly affected by the episode.

With their midfielders dominating play and possession, Karnataka played much of the opening half in Air India’s side. However, they just couldn’t break the deadlock as Air India defended deep, thwarting the hosts attempt without much trouble. Needing something out of the ordinary to breach the gritty Air India wall, the hosts struck three minutes from half-time following a fine piece of play.

Rafiq Shaikh and Mohan Muthanna exchanged a fine 1-2 before Muthanna released the ball to a charging Shaikh, who dribbled down the right and whipped in a sharp cross. An alert Pundalik Bellary then deflected the ball home as the hosts got their much-wanted goal.

Nitin Thimmaiah then doubled the lead in the 44th minute in brilliant fashion. The young striker dribbled past four defenders from the right to the left in a sudden burst of pace inside the circle, before slamming home a reverse-hit just off balance to put the hosts in a commanding position before things took a turn for the worse.

Air India switched gears instantly and the hosts, visibly upset with umpire Ripudaman Sharma’s decisions, slowly began to lose the plot. They lost their cool first when Sharma awarded Air India a contentious penalty, penalising Vikram for what appeared to be clean tackle on Shivendra.

Air India then continued to press forward relentlessly and were back on level terms on the hour mark, Halappa scoring from the spot after Vinaya’s goal-bound ball caught Bipin Bopaiah on the knee. Tempers soon began to flare up between the two teams and their captains -- VR Raghunath and Halappa -- were shown the shown the yellow for an one-field fracas in the 62nd minute.

Conjuring all their experience, Air India then preyed on the inexperienced nerves of Karnataka, who after soaking up plenty of late pressure, caved in at the very end off a penalty corner. After being denied by the post with his first strike, Vinaya slammed off the rebound, leaving the hosts completely befuddled and heart-broken.

Semifinal results: Air India: 3 (Arjun Halappa 50th, 61st, VS Vinaya 70th) bt Karnataka: 2 (Pundalik Bellary 32nd, Nitin Thimmaiah 44th); Punjab: 4 (Gurjinder Singh 15th, 21st, Sarvanjit Singh 51st, Satbir Singh 58th) bt Haryana: 1 (Naveen Antil 58th).

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