The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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India, Korea in battle to top group

Busan: On the face of it, Friday’s pool A hockey clash between India and South Korea is a ‘dead rubber.’ Both teams are sitting pretty, have already captured semi-final spots. Nothing but the group championship issue is at stake.

Both coaches have said it doesn’t matter where they finish and who they confront in the last-four stage. But anyone conversant with hockey will know they are kidding. There’s a team called Pakistan in pool B and none in the right frame of mind will face them unless forced to. Malaysia or China — the other semi-final contenders — are any day more beatable than Pakistan.

There’s no way India or Korea can plan their next move — simply because the fate of pool B won’t be known before Sunday. The Pakistan-Malaysia encounter that afternoon will determine who occupies position No. 1.

“We’ll take it as any other match and play for a win,” Rajinder Singh said on the eve of the Korean clash.

Ever since they emerged as a world power a decade-and-a-half ago, the Koreans have posed problems for India. Take a look at this year’s record as an example. Of the five times they have met each other, India and Korea have won twice each while the other game produced a stalemate.

The Indian triumphs came at four-nation meets in Australia but at both big events, they came out second-best. The Koreans won 2-1 at the World Cup in February and 4-2 in Cologne (Champions Trophy) last month.

“They are a tough and fighting side, it certainly won’t be easy for us,” said the Indian coach after the team workout Thursday. “On top of it, they have the home advantage.”

Vocal support will all be for Korea at the 2,000-seater Gangseo Hockey Stadium. All these days, the stadium has been flooded by a sea of blue — local youngsters sporting Samsung T-shirts and cheering both teams in a non-Korea match. Tomorrow, their loyalty will not let them wander elsewhere.

The Indians are yet to reproduce their Cologne form. The fluency in attack and midfield combination have clicked only in patches. The coach, though, says that is part of strategy. “We have to hold back sometimes and rely on counter-attacks… that’s how we played against Hong Kong and Japan, and we’ll follow the same style Friday,” Rajinder remarked.

What has the coach worried is their penalty corner conversion. In Cologne, the Indians scored from almost 50 per cent of the penalty corners they were awarded. In Busan, so far they have converted just one out of eight.

“Penalty corner is such an important aspect of the modern game… we had shown great improvement in Champions Trophy but it’s back to square one here. We worked exclusively on this aspect today,” informed the former Olympian.

He has not decided on the goalkeeper yet, but there’s every chance that young Bharat Chhetri will be rewarded for his good show Wednesday. Prabhjot Singh will again have to sit out. He has a suspected ligament tear on the right leg and is even doubtful for the semi-finals.

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