India end 16-year wait for gold

India end 16-year wait for gold

Sardar Singh’s men prevail over arch rivals Pakistan 4-2 via penalty shoot-out in a tense final.

The magic moment that the Indian hockey had been waiting for a long time finally arrived on a chilly evening at the Seonhak Stadium when the men’s team defeated arch-rivals Pakistan to wear the cherished gold for the third time.

In a thrilling end-to-end contest that concluded 1-1 after the regulation time, goalkeeper PR Sreejesh emerged as the hero pulling off two brilliant saves while Dharamvir Singh did well under pressure in converting the final attempt as India scored a 4-2 penalty shoot-out victory. There was no extra time.

After Akashdeep Singh handed India 1-0 lead, Sreejesh first thwarted Abdul Haseem Khan in the very next shot Pakistan took and almost effected a second straight save when he twice stopped Waqas Mohammed. The striker, though, kept his cool and slotted home.

Leading 2-1, Manpreet Singh shot inside the post despite getting himself entangled with Pakistani goalkeeper Imran Butt. The goal was, however, was not awarded as it appeared to take a deflection off Manpreet’s foot.

Sreejesh, who has been one of the standout performers for India over the last year or so, then easily kept out Muhammad Umar Bhutta before Birendra Lakra made it 3-1 in India’s favour with a delightful finish.

Pakistan’s Shafqat converted his team’s fourth try to push the contest into the mandatory fifth one but Dharamvir easily rounded off Imran to sound the board, sparking off wild celebrations as India claimed their third Asian Games gold, the last one coming way back in 1998 at Bangkok.

Earlier, both teams fought tooth and nail with supporters and a few athletes from either nations filling up the stadium. Pakistan got the start they wanted, drawing first blood as early as in the third minute.

Like they did in the group game, Pakistan caught India in a blistering counter-attack, with seasoned campaigner Shakeel Abbasi receiving the ball just off the half-line before dribbling into the circle and releasing a perfectly-weighted pass to Muhamamd Rizwan Sr. The striker collected it well and thundered it past Sreejesh as India were pushed on the backfoot even before they could settle down.

The goal seemed to unnerve the Indians as Pakistan troubled them with their pace. The Pakistani midfield kept intercepting India’s passes, hardly allowing them the room to operate.

Despite chasing shadows, India had a great chance to finish the opening quarter even stevens but Ramandeep Singh shot straight at goalkeeper Imran from point blank range and SV Sunil slammed the following rebound way over, summing up their performance.The two-minute interval after the first quarter allowed India to reorganise and they came roaring back in the second. 

Passing with intent, they completely dominated Pakistan, creating chance after chance but failed to score, thanks to some brilliant goalkeeping from Imran. He kept out a thunderous drag-flick from Rupinder Pal Singh, standing like a rock to all of India’s advances.

India kept their cool amidst all the misses and earned the dividends for their deep pressing and patience. Gurbaj Singh, in the 27th minute, whipped a defence-splitting vicious ball into the circle and an alert Kothajit Singh deflected it home.

The goal spurred the Indians and they kept bombarding Pakistan, who just appeared flat, with alarming regularity but just couldn’t find the lead.

India, mixing attack and defence well in an effort not to get caught in the counter again, created two fine chances in the third quarter but Dharamvir and Ramandeep lacked composure in finishing.

Not willing to take any chances, India chose to curb their attacking instincts in the final quarter, only going completely forward when Pakistan didn’t have the numbers to back. The arch-rivals, on the other hand, woke up from their slumber and threatened to punish India with their individual brilliances.

India though showed their new-found maturity and industriousness. Like how they safeguarded the 1-0 lead in a tense finish against South Korea in the semifinals, they controlled the pace towards the closing stages and almost pulled off a last-gasp stunner but Dharamvir failed to control the chest-high ball.

The hooter went off in seconds as the gilt-edged contest headed into the shoot-out. With history of having lost five finals to their arch-rivals, the burden hung heavily on India.
 They banished that and all the bitterness that has paralysed the national game for decades with a steely performance in the shoot-out, giving fans what they’ve been waiting for decades – joy and ecstasy.

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