Kuantan: Goalkeeper PR Sreejesh starred in front of the goal on Saturday to help India beat South Korea in the penalty shootout and set up a mouth-watering title clash against arch-rivals Pakistan in the fourth Asian Champions Trophy hockey tournament.
Recovering from his ankle injury to play in the semifinal at the Kuantan Hockey Stadium, Sreejesh saved the South Korea’s last attempt to secure the hard-fought 5-4 win in the shootout after both the teams were locked 2-2 at the end of regulation time.
Sreejesh padded away the ball from the stick of Lee Dae-Yeol to clinch the victory and seal India’s place in Sunday’s summit clash.
This is India’s third entry into the final of the Asian Champions Trophy, whose inaugural edition it won in 2011 and were runners-up to Pakistan in 2012.
Later in the day, defending champions Pakistan avenged their loss to hosts Malaysia in the opening match when they prevailed 3-2 in the penalty shootout of the second semifinal after the regulation period ended in a 1-1 draw.
India had earlier defeated Pakistan 2-1 in the round-robin league stage of the tournament.
During regulation period, Malaysia opened the scoring in the 18th minute through a penalty corner conversion by Shahril Saabah, but Pakistan equalised through an open play goal by Abdul Khan in the 34th minute.
In the shootout, only the first two attempts for Malaysia by Firhan Ashari and and Faizal Saari were converted, while Faiz Jali, Shahril Saabah and Fitri Saari all faltered.
Only four shots were taken for Pakistan as Abdul Khan, Mohammed Ifran Jr and Mohammed Arslan Qadir shot on target, while only Mohammed Rizwan Sr failed on his attempt. As they had already taken a winning lead, the fifth Pakistan shot was not required.
Earlier, top-ranked India found the young Koreans tough opponents, who bounced back after conceding the initial lead and were in the lead briefly before India got the equaliser in regulation period.
Talwinder Singh gave India the initial lead with a field goal in the 15th minute, but the Koreans came back to score through Seo In-Woo’s strike in open play in the 21st and then took the lead from a penalty stroke conversion by Yang Ji-Hun in the 53rd.
The match went to shootout after Ramandeep Singh scored made it 2-2 for India in the 55th minute.
In the shootout, Sardar Singh, Ramandeep Singh, Rupinder Pal Singh and Akashdeep Singh duly scored the first four attempts before Birendra Lakra was obstructed and the resultant penalty stroke was converted by Rupinder to give India all five successful strikes in the shootout.
For South Korea, captain Jung Man-Jae, Kim Hyeong-Jin and Lee Jung-Jun faced no problem in converting their attempts. The fourth shot by Bae Jong-Suk was blocked by Sreejesh, but a penalty stroke was awarded for a stick-check by the Indian goalkeeper after Korea asked for a video referral and the resultant stroke was converted by Yang Ji-Hun.
It all came down to the last Korean shot and Sreejesh rose to the occasion to deny Lee Dae-Yeol to seal the affair.
During the match, India launched the first attack in the seventh minute as Talwinder moved into the circle from the left and tried a reverse shot to the far post, but the ball was intercepted by a defender to avert the danger.
The first Indian penalty corner came two minutes later, but Rupinder’s grounder posed no danger to the Korean goal.
Right-half Pradeep Mor sent a diagonal ball into the goalmouth, where Talwinder’s faint deflection went wide of the left post in the 14th minute.
Within 15 seconds, Talwinder got a ball from Akashdeep on the other flank and this time he unleashed a diagonal shot from top of the circle into the boards to open India’s account.
The Koreans retaliated with their first penalty corner, but captain Jang Man-Jae’s shot was wide.
Nikkin Thimmaiah dribbled around in the Korean circle in the 17th minute to get a clear view of the goal, but then left the ball for India’s captain for the match SK Uthappa, who shot wide after dribbling past a defender.
The Koreans equalised in the 21st minute when Rupinder was unable to intercept a long through pass at the top of the circle. Nippy Korean striker Seo In-Woo succeeded in stealing the ball from Rupinder and then wrong-footed him to have a clear view of the citadel. Seo beat custodian Sreejesh with a firm drive that sounded the boards.
The Koreans then forced two penalty corners before half-time, but failed to convert both.
In between two Korean penalty corners, India got a penalty corner, but the defenders rushed off briskly to block Rupinder’s shot within a yard of leaving his stick in the 29th minute.
Rupinder was frustrated again in the 36th minute from India’s third penalty corner. This time a rising shot was slapped pack by goalkeeper Hong Doopyo.
The last quarter of the match was played under heavy rains. The Koreans made the most of a momentary confusion in the Indian defence near 25 years and moved the ball briskly to the circle to earn their fourth penalty corner.
Goalkeeper Sreejesh blocked two shot and the third shy on the round struck the body of Devender Walmiki, who was standing on the goalline. The resultant penalty stroke was duly converted by Yang Ji-Hun to give South Korea a 2-1 lead in the 53rd minute.
Trailing for the first time in the contest, India charged ahead to earn a penalty corner, where the shot was deflected out by the defenders, but Sardar Singh produced his old sparkle to set up the Indian equaliser.
Sardar moved in along the goalline on the left flank and went past a couple of Koreans before passing the ball to Ramandeep Singh who flicked into the goal to draw level.
India continued to attack in the last five minutes, but the Koreans packed their territory in numbers to thwart any danger to their citadel.