They were pre-tournament favourites expected to clash for the title but India and Pakistan faced-off here on Saturday for a consolation third place, India winning 2-1. For the houseful crowd, though, it didn’t matter and the teams, true to their reputation, played out perhaps the best match of the competition.
With India and Pakistan, the performance is as important as the result. There can be no dull periods, no defensive play and no holding back, regardless of the situation. It results in exciting, non-stop action for 60 minutes with fortunes changing as quickly as ball possession. On Saturday, Pakistan brought all its intensity to the field, as did India, both out to prove a point after semifinal upsets to less-fancied Malaysia and Japan. This was India’s third bronze medal in Asiad. Pakistan finished out of the medal bracket for only the second time in Asiad, after 2002.
India got its opening goal in the third-minute, Akashdeep deflecting in a Lalit Upadhyay pass into the net. That set the template for the remaining 57 minutes with little to separate the two sides.
India had 15 shots at goal compared to 14 for Pakistan. India had two penalty corners to Pakistan’s three. The goalkeepers from both sides were kept busy and the defence stretched. The Indians, bunched together and listless in the semifinal, were a rejuvenated lot. They made good use of accurate aerial balls and opened up space from the flanks.
The Indian defence was impeccable in its clearances, especially Harmanpreet Singh who also scored, but left a lot to be desired in its marking. Pakistan forwards Ali Shan, Mohammed Atiq and Mohammed Dilber took advantage but ended up shooting wide before Atiq finally got one into the net. But unlike in the past, when it would have gone haywire trying to equalise, it kept its structure all through, credit for which must go to coach Roelant Oltmans.
There were still concerns, though. Pakistan’s defence was suspect but India’s forwards did nothing to make use of it. They were kept well-fed, often with just the goalkeeper to beat, but could not get past Imran Butt. They held on to the ball just a tad longer and questions would be raised on the accuracy and efficacy of seniors like Sardar Singh, S.V. Sunil and Rupinder Pal Singh.
But coach Harendra Singh insisted he was proud of his team and applauded both sides for showing character in such an intense showdown, Oltmans was satisfied too with the way his team kept its structure and created chances in the second and third quarters, Pakistan captain Rizwan Ali said India were lucky to win but his team was getting closer and P.R. Sreejesh said the team had learnt its lessons and was satisfied to finish on a winning note and take this as a morale-booster ahead of the Asian Champions Trophy and the World Cup.
The final, appearing to be a one-sided affair for the first half, turned on its head in the second with Japan coming back from a 5-2 deficit to level 6-6 with 20 seconds left and then putting it past Malaysia 3-1 in the shootouts to not just lift the title but complete a rare double with the women having triumphed a day before.
This was the first ever Asiad title for the 16th placed Japan, the lowest ranked of the four semifinalists.