For a team so intrinsically built on momentum and a swathe of high-speed passes, India still needed a bit of luck, Harmanpreet Singh's hat-trick of penalty corner conversions and a brilliant up-field pass to carve out a 4-1 victory over a South Korean side that has seen better days. India were still smarting from that dull, listless goalless draw with Malaysia. And with coach Harendra Singh criticising his forwards for not being in the right spot at the right time, the game against South Korea was an improved display yet one came off the match with that feeling of having watched a dull movie with a great star cast.
These are not critical times; yet to look into the Indian side with its traditional yo-yoing consistency, the coach needs to grab the issue by the scruff of its neck. India sit on the top of the points table with 13 points and Malaysia can catch them if they beat Pakistan. But India with an overall better goal difference will surely top the Pool and thus by all calculations end up playing Japan in the semi-finals.
For those who have seen South Korean teams over the last two decades culminating in their 2000 Sydney Olympics silver medal, this was an amateur side. The slide in Korean fortunes has been perplexing. Among a lot of factors, which includes a dwindling talent pool, is also the absence of a top-notch coach. Till Kim Sang-Ryul was there, the Korean hockey was tactically a top-six team and they held that position for almost a decade. Pace was the weapon for Korea along with a solid midfield domination and error-free play. Korea managed to hold India in the second and third quarter and also got a goal back in the 2nd quarter. In the 3rd quarter, they played resolutely in the midfield as India, for reasons known only to them, stopped the aerial passes and crept back into positions of 6-8 man defending.
The start was brilliant as India had a penalty corner in the fifth minute and Harmanpreet Singh was on target. India swarmed all over the Koreans in the next five minutes " Akashdeep Singh blazed over, Mandeep Singh couldn't latch onto a cross and Dilpreet Singh was again a little hasty.
Just when India seemed a little down after a flurry of unfinished moves, Harmanpreet created a sensational up-field pass. Most of the players were caught grouped just around the India midfield when Harmanpreet steered the ball to his left and saw Gurjant, the lone forward inside the Korean striking circle.
Deep from the Indian half, Harmanpreet's reverse hit sped perfectly onto Gurjant's stick. He only had to trap, move up a little to his left and let loose a strike that the Korean goalkeeper could only watch fly by. It was a terrific goal that should have got the blood pounding in the rest of the players. Goals like these build big momentums, turn courses of matches and make even out-of-form players play like wizards.
At the end of the 1st quarter, India were still struggling in the midfield while Korea built themselves back into the match. In the 20th minute, Korean captain Seungil Lee found himself on the right hand corner of the Indian striking circle. Moving in towards PR Sreejesh would have cut the angle down. Lee did the next best thing. He hit a flat, rising shot that zipped high into the corner of the Indian goal. Sreejesh was rooted to the spot, caught completely unawares by Lee's opportunism.
Korea played well after Lee's goal. They held the ball and didn't allow many errors to creep in. They kept the Indian defence occupied where Surender, Varun and Harmanpreet had a good outing. At the end of the second quarter, India had nine circle entries compared to Korea's five; both the teams were running each other close.
Korea were slightly more aggressive in the 3rd quarter, cutting through India's midfield to swarm the defence and off one such move that came in from the right flank, they scored with the ball going through Krishan Pathak's legs, a silly goal to concede for any goalkeeper. India meanwhile referred and the video umpire reversed the decision. Pathak and India breathed easy.
Korea then also had their 2nd PC which was shot wide. It was a slightly scrappy affair as both teams tried to find a breakthrough. The perplexing bit about India's play has always been the sporadic bits of brilliance with large chunks of mediocrity creeping in when raising its level is what good teams accomplish. Manpreet Singh had a great chance when Gurinder passed the ball in the middle of the Korean circle. Manpreet caught with his back to the goal tried to tap in the ball between his legs. But the Korean defence cleared.
India upped the aggression in the 4th quarter. Jarmanpreet made a few solo runs down the right flank. Manpreet, playing slightly on the right half side, created a few moves with Gurjant constantly threatening inside the Korean circle. India had two consecutive PCs and Harmanpreet flicked home his second goal of the match as India led 3-1. Jarman was shown the green card, an area India really need to look at even though in the match against Pakistan they didn't get a card. Korea managed a 3rd PC after a shove by Surender on Kim JungHoo but Pathak was alert and brought off a good save. With approximately three minutes remaining in the match, Korea pulled off their goalkeeper and brought in a kicking back.
India pushed harder and Mandeep was literally jumped on by a Korean full back. The resultant PC was flicked in cleanly by Harmanpreet for his hat-trick as India led 4-1. Harmanpreet hat-trick would give him the necessary confidence for the upcoming semi-final, most probably against Japan, at the moment the 4th placed team. In the last ten meetings with Korea, India have won six with four matches drawn. In fact, in the 2017 Asia Cup in Dhaka, Korea had led till the last minute before India found the equaliser for a 1-1 draw. The larger margins of victory have been 4-1, 5-3 (AG, 2018) and 3-0 (WC, 2014).
India would be prepared for the semi-finals with a two-day gap giving the much needed space for the team to huddle and work out plans for the knockout games. Each player knows the importance of the tournament keeping in mind the upcoming World Cup. Maybe, the momentum, speed and fast hockey played at the Champions Trophy, Breda is taking a bit longer to fade out. Or, the constant tinkering also takes a toll on players and coaches. Inspiration sometimes comes from within. For that, all the team has to do is rewind to Harmanpreet's delectable reverse-hit cross followed by Gurjant's brilliant goal.