A gold that seemed destined to come India’s way slipped away in sad fashion in Asian Games hockey on Thursday. India, favourites and the top-ranked team in the continent, suffered a painful defeat in sudden death to Malaysia to bow out of contention in the semifinals.
Leading 2-1 with less than two minutes left, India conceded a late goal to be level 2-2 in regulation time. The shoot couldn’t separate the teams, pushing the game to sudden death. Malaysia’s Tajuddin Ahmed converted his attempt but S V Sunil missed the mark as dejection overwhelmed the Indian camp.
The shootout score read 7-6 in favour of the Malaysians who will take on Japan in the final on Saturday. The Japanese sprung a major surprise by stunning eight-time champions Pakistan 1-0 in the other semifinal, thanks to Shota Yamada’s strike in the 18th minute. India and Pakistan were expected to meet in the final but they will now play for the bronze medal.
Missing the gold is a double blow for India, as the champions here will earn a direct qualification to the 2020 Olympic Games. Now they will have to undergo the qualification rigmarole, and the job of coach Harendra Singh also could be on the line, if the Indian Hockey Federation sticks to their ways.
Having scored 76 goals in the league phase, India struggled to open up the Malaysian defence in the semifinals. The Malaysians, with their close marking, hustled the Indians into errors. The defending champions found little room in the well-policed Malaysian striking circle and hurting their cause even more was the poor penalty corner conversion rate.
India survived a scare when a Malaysian goal was disallowed on a referral in the fifth minute. Looking for an early goal, India had four penalty corners in the first quarter but Rupinder Pal Singh couldn’t beat Subramaniam Kumar in the Malaysian goal.
India lost their rhythm slowly as the busy Malaysians forced them into errors. They were let down by poor passing too as the second quarter also ended goalless. Harmanpreet Singh finally broke the deadlock converting a penalty corner in the 33rd minute but Malaysia hit back soon after off a counter-attack, Tajuddin triggering the move and Faizal Saari finishing it off in the 39th minute.
Almost immediately, India were back on top as they went indirect with their eighth penalty corner, and Varun Kumar fired in off Harmanpreet’s pass in the 40th minute. India were down to nine men, with both Sardar Singh and Surender Kumar suspended temporarily for rough play but Malaysians couldn’t take advantage. But they stepped up the pressure in the final quarter and India cracked, as Muhammad Rahim struck off a penalty corner in the 59th minute.
In the shootout, India were playing catch-up all the time and as the pressure mounted, they caved in. Sunil, who had missed once, slipped up for a second time as the door closed firmly on India.