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Pumped-up India gunning for gold

Busan, Oct. 11: Mission Pakistan has been accomplished. The icing on the cake would be the conquest of South Korea in their own den at the Gangseo Hockey Stadium Saturday.

Of course, it is easier said than done. The Koreans are a tough nut to crack, more so for the Indians who have been even-Stevens with the Asian Games hosts in recent times.

A 1-1 stalemate a few days ago in the pool stage here was preceded by a 2-4 defeat for India at the Cologne Champions Trophy. India beat Korea at the four-nation meets in Australia and the Netherlands but lost to them in the Kuala Lumpur World Cup.

Dhanraj Pillay, though, refuses to take the Cologne result into consideration. “That was an inconsequential game for us as we had already qualified for the top four and took it a little easy,” the Indian star said this morning just before a team meeting.

With just a day separating the final from the semi-final, the Indians didn’t go for any heavy workout Friday. The jogging and stretching apart, the whole team got together thrice to chalk out strategy in quest for gold.

Four years ago in Bangkok, the Indians had overcome the same opposition after a penalty shootout in the final. It could again go the full distance if the Indians fail to take their chances.

Against Pakistan, Pillay and his teammates created eight chances and converted four. Rajinder Singh is looking for an encore. “The way we are playing, the opportunities will come. The important thing is, we have to utilise them like we did in the semi-final,” the coach remarked.

Penalty corners will play a key role too. The Koreans are good at scoring from such situations, having a 50 per cent conversion rate in this championship. Not only will India have to defend effectively, they will do well to convert some also.

“Our stopping has been a problem here. We are trying out a new player, hopefully things will fall into place,” Rajinder said. The hitting hasn’t been great by either Dilip Tirkey or Jugraj Singh. Their defensive work, along with Kanwalpreet Singh’s, has been very efficient and they need to stand firm for one more match.

Song Seong-tae and Seo Jong-ho are the two men Indians would like to bottle up. Both have the class to rip through any defence on their day. Round One went to the Indians who hardly allowed Song and Seo any room to work on.

The Koreans have had more or less the same set of players since the Bangkok Asian Games. “Maybe, one or two players have changed. Our team, on the other hand, has introduced several juniors in the last one-two years,” said Pillay who along with Tirkey are the only survivors from the 1998 gold winners.

“They may be higher on experience but certainly not unbeatable,” said Pillay. “Our young team has been shaping up well this year. We can win if we reproduce our semi-final form.”

Having lost a great deal of energy in beating their arch-rivals, there’s a danger of the Indians taking the final a bit too lightly.

“No doubt we were very pumped up for the semi-final against Pakistan but that doesn’t mean we’ll be overconfident or relaxed against Korea,” Pillay quipped. “I have learnt my lessons from past experience. That’s what I have told the boys at the team meetings.”

On merit and form, the Indians do look quite formidable. Pillay himself has continued from where he left off at the Champions Trophy while Gagan Ajit Singh’s consistency is any forward’s envy. Daljit Singh Dhillon has filled in well for the injured Prabhjot Singh and has scored in all three matches.

With the goalkeepers — both Devesh Chauhan and Bharat Chhetri — in fine nick with the rest of the defence, one would be tempted to bet on an Indian victory. Home advantage, as Pillay pointed out, isn’t likely to be a huge asset for the Koreans.

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