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India-Pakistan cracker on the cards

Source: PTI
September 10, 2011 16:16 IST

With India's confidence sky-high after an unbeaten run in the league stage, the vivacious men in blue will lock horn with arch-rivals Pakistan in what promises a cracker of a final in the inaugural Asian Champions Trophy hockey tournament in Ordos, China, on Sunday.

After their pulsating 2-2 draw in Friday's group match, the stage is set for another thrilling encounter between the traditional rivals.

In the group match, India fought back after being 0-2 down as both teams played a cautious game intent on reaching the final.

Sunday should see a thriller, as both have nothing to lose, though hockey fans in both nations would love to see their respective teams triumph.

India have done well to reach the final. Critics and a host of former players believed that the team, without the stars, would not be able to deliver. But Michael Nobbs's team has surprised many.

India is the only unbeaten team in the championship, and, with a goal difference of +7, it is ahead of the others in the scoring department.

The forward line is its trump card in the Champions Trophy. From the moment they beat China 5-0, the momentum was there to piggy back on.

Twice India fought back from deficits -- against Malaysia they were losing 1-2 and drew the match 2-2. Against Pakistan they were down 0-2 and fought back with two goals.

It is that spirit that India would play with in the final.

"This team has handled pressure like pros. They needed an incentive and now the team has got it by playing a final. Whatever the result, we will throw everything into the match," Nobbs said.

If the Indian team management has to worry about something, it is the failure to convert penalty-corners. Nobbs is not too worried but does admit that the players do come under pressure.

India has had 23 penalty-corners in the tournament and only scored thrice from them. Rupinder Pal Singh, apart from scoring off two penalty-corners, also converted a stroke against South Korea.

"The problem is not about conversion, it's about the rusher coming directly at the flicker," said Nobbs. "It's a FIH directive that the rusher should not run directly to the flicker. So what happens is that Pakistan is running straight to the flicker.

"I will probably have a talk with the umpires and it is clear they are not reviewing the matches. But when our rusher ran straight, the umpire hauled him up. There needs to be a clear consistent line in umpiring."

But it's not only about the inconsistency of rules. India has failed to trap the ball neatly for the flicker to have a go. Against Pakistan, every penalty-corner will be worth its weight in gold.

Nobbs is very clear that the Indians will throw everything into attack.

"We don't play for draws or defensive. We go for wins and we go for goals," he said.

This line of playing attacking hockey has been consistent with the Indian team. Or as Nobbs says, "fortune favours the brave".

Pakistan captain Muhammad Imran does feel the pressure of an India-Pakistan final.

"The public wants both the countries to win. Unfortunately, only one nation can win and that adds to the pressure. But we will go all out and ensure that good and attacking hockey in the true Asian style is played," he said.

Pakistan has a lethargic defence and sometimes it is seen that they have been slow in warding off counter-attacks. Imran believes the final will be a different ball game.

"All finals are different," he says. "The group match was a bit tense as both teams wanted to go through to the final," he explained. "But the final will be attacking and the team that converts will win."

Haseem Abdul Khan, a youngster playing as a forward with the Pakistan team, says it is a golden chance for the young players.

"For us, playing a final against India is fantastic," he says with obvious pride. "If we win, our confidence will get a boost, as we have already qualified for the 2012 London Olympics."

Written off by many back home before the Indians landed in Ordos, the entry into the final hasn't surprised coach Nobbs.

"I was very nervous when we came here," he admits. "But after the match against China, I knew we were good. I am glad that investing in the youngsters has paid off. So reaching the final is not a surprise anymore."

Nobbs believes that the players will not buckle under pressure of playing Pakistan in the final.

"The pressure will be on me," he says.

"It's my first final as coach of India against Pakistan (laughs). The boys are all excited and ready to go for the final."

Thankfully, also for both the teams, the sun is out on Saturday and the weather not as chilly as it was on Friday. Predictions are there that it would be sunny on Sunday. Friday was chilly as the temperature had dipped to around seven degrees with intermittent rain.

India and Pakistan have played 148 matches, with former winning 48, drawing 25 and losing 75. India has scored 280 goals and conceded 349. It's a bit of stats that the team would like to improve on.

India captain Rajpal Singh, the one player with the most experience of playing against Pakistan, apart from Gurbaz Singh, said the team is very confident.

"We haven't lost a match in the tournament. We would play our natural game and attack to get goals," he said.

From India's point of view, carrying home the Asian Champions Trophy would be a massive boost looking ahead to the 2012 London Qualifying tournament.

For Nobbs and his young team, it will be vindication of investing in youth.

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