India made a spirited fightback in the second half but failed to earn a direct berth in next year's hockey World Cup as they lost the high-scoring summit clash 3-4 to defending champions South Korea, in Ipoh, Malaysia, on Monday.
The Koreans scored through Jang Jong Hyun (28th minute), You Hyo Sik (29th), Nam Hyun Woo (57th) and Kang Moon Kweon (68th). For India, Rupinderpal Singh (48th), Nikkin Thimmaiah (57th) and Mandeep Singh (64th) were the goal-getters.
The Indians, who are virtually assured of a place in the game's showpiece event to be held at The Hague, Netherlands, needed to win the eight-nation tournament to secure a direct entry in the World Cup. Korea's fourth title win means Malaysia are certain to return to the World Cup after a gap of 12 years.
The Indians will now have to wait till the conclusion of the Oceania Cup in November, which either Australia or New Zealand is expected to win, for the official confirmation of their participation from the FIH.
Both Australia and New Zealand have already made it to the World Cup through FIH World League.
It was a case of near yet so far for the Indians who did a tremendous job in the second half, after going into the breather trailing by two goals.
But the Indians eventually fell short as Korea eked out a hard-fought win and also got their revenge over the Sardar Singh-led side against whom they had lost 0-2 in the pool stage.
However, it was a great show by a young and inexperienced Indian team, considering the fact that the country finished a lowly seventh in the last edition of the event in 2009.
It was a fitting contest between the two top teams of the Asia as both India and Korea matched each other stick for stick.
The Indians started the match on a bright note and dominated the early share of exchanges, India made some good moves from the right flank but the forwards fizzled after entering the opposition circle.
Korea's game was all about putting the Indian defence under pressure through counter-attacks.
The Indian defence was tested to the core by the quick, nimble-footed Koreans from the beginning as goalkeeper P R Sreejesh made a valiant double save in the 21st minute to keep a clean slate.
Soon India had their first scoring opportunity through their first penalty corner but V R Raghunath’s flick was blocked by a Korean defender.
In the 26th minute Nithi Thimmaiah had a good chance of giving India the lead but his reverse hit from close range went wide.
Korea soon earned their first penalty corner and the tournament’s top-scorer, Jang Jong Hyun, made no mistake, converting the set piece with a variation.
A minute later, Korea stunned India again when You Hyo Sik tapped home from Nam Hyun Woo’s cross from the left flank to go into the breather with a morale-boosting 2-0 lead.
The Indians, however, made a strong comeback after the lemon break and put the Korean defence under continuous pressure with repeated raids.
But goals eluded India till the 47th minute as Korea defended in numbers.
India pulled one back in the 48th minute from their second penalty corner which was perfectly converted by Rupinder to bring smiles back on the faces of the Indian crowd present at the stadium.
The goal lifted India’s spirits as they went for relentless attacks and finally managed to reduce parity through young Nikkin Thimmaiah.
Nikkin scored in the 54h minute with a fierce reverse hit from top of the circle after receiving a pass from Manpreet Singh.
But India's joy was short-lived as Korea regained their lead three minutes later. The Koreans were awarded a penalty stroke after an Indian defender blocked Nam Hyun Woo’s dragflcik with the body from their third short corner.
Nam Hyn Woo stepped up to take the penalty and calmly foxed Sreejesh under the Indian goal to make the scoreline 3-2 in their favour.
The Indians thereafter pressed hard for the equaliser and seven minutes from the final whistle got a great chance but an unmarked Ramdeep Singh faltered as he hit the ball over with only the Korean goalkeeper Lee Myung Ho to beat.
But India did not lose hope and kept up the pressure.
Their efforts bore fruit in the 64th minute when young striker Mandeep found himself at the right position at the right moment to send one inside the net from a Birendra Lakra cross.
But just two minutes from the hooter some sloppy defending from Dharamvir Singh and Rupinder resulted in Korea’s third penalty corner and Kang Moon Kweon made no mistake with the chance shattering the hopes of handful of Indian supporters present at the stadium.
Apart from the runners-up trophy, India’s P R Sreejesh was adjudged the best goalkeeper of the tournament, while V R Raghunath was selected as the most outstanding player.
Photograph: Hockey India/Facebook