| Indian goalkeeper Devesh Chauhan tries to thwart a Pakistani attack in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday. (AFP)
Kuala Lumpur: Three-time champions Pakistan survived a late Indian charge to prevail 3-2 and virtually assure themselves a place in the final of the Azlan Shah Cup hockey tournament here Wednesday.
Pakistan initially fired on all cylinders as their strikers exhibited flair and fluency coupled with supreme athleticism to take a commanding 3-0 lead in the first session.
But the Indians fought back superbly in the second session scoring two goals through Deepak Thakur and Sandeep Michael and missing a penalty stroke, to redeem themselves and give the scoreline some respectability.
In earlier matches, Australia set themselves on course for a title clash with Pakistan swamping South Africa 8-3, while hosts Malaysia were lost to New Zealand 1-3.
The match of the day, however, was played between the traditional rivals where India again left wide open gaps in the midfield as both Bimal Lakra and Devinder Pal Singh became easy pickings, as was Len Aiyappa in the deep.
On the other hand, Rehan Butt and Shabbir Husain excelled on the wings, while Shakeel Abbasi and Tariq Aziz moved in tandem down the centre. They were well fed by midfielders captain Muhammad Saqlain and Dilawar Husain.
They earned three penalty corners in the first half, taking the lead from the second in the eighth minute when forward Adnan Zakir deflected a soft Mohammed Imran flick.
The Indians looked jaded and disjointed and hardly produced a noteworthy attack. There was no teamwork as most players put in individualist efforts. Rajpal Singh again tried on the right flank, but his tendency to overhold the ball made matters worse for the eight-time Olympic winners.
Pakistan went further ahead in the 11th minute as skipper Dilip Tirkey and Aiyappa were caught in no man’s land with unmarked Butt taping in a Shabbir set up.
The Indians tried in vain to reduce the margin, Prabhjot Singh was found wanting on two occasions, first missing a sitter and then finishing meekly for an easy save by Pakistan goalkeeper Salman Akbar.
Inside forward Deepak Thakur also squandered an easy chance to reduce the margin, shooting wide from a Rajpal cross.
Pakistan, breathing down heavily on their rivals’ neck, found their third goal in the 29th minute when Akhtar Ali drew goalkeeper Devesh Chauhan out and then neatly angled it past him.
Rajpal Singh was the victim of a harsh decision by umpire Tim Pullman of Australia when he was shown the yellow card for stick locking with Dilawar just before the breather, thus reducing India to ten men.
After the crossover, Pakistan looked as if they have lost their sheen a bit as relaxation tendencies crept into their play.
India during this period struck their golden patch of the game, first getting a penalty stroke in the 37th minute. However, to the disappointment of the big support, Arjun Halappa hit the upright to keep the Pakistan lead intact.
It was Deepak who reduced the margin (1-3) after he hit home from India’s third penalty corner.
Propelled by this success, India’s attack eventually found some rhythm as Pakistan faltered with unforced errors from defenders Zeeshan Ashraf and Imran as they conceded four penalty corners in the last session.
India, for the first time, seemed to have the upper hand and scored their second goal in the 53rd minute when Sandeep Michael deflected a Ignace Tirkey cross. Excitement mounted all around as India went all out for the equaliser, but the Pakistan defence stood out stoutly to deny their arch rivals a draw.
Pakistan are now on the brink of playing the final, having collected 13 points so far. They only need a draw in their last fixture against hosts Malaysia on Friday to go through to Sunday’s final.
India will play Olympic champions Australia in their last outing also on Friday. They have four points and are likely play for the fifth and sixth slots. (PTI)