During a passage of play in the second half,the Indian Under-21 team looked every bit the Junior World Cup favorites that hockey fans had been led into believing they were. Roughly between the 43rd and 53rd minute,the home team,leading 2-1 in a must-win final Pool C game,virtually besieged the Korean circle.
Egged on by the vociferous 5000-strong crowd,India threatened to score every time they made an attempt,and they seemed to be just a stroke away from goal almost every single minute in the said duration. They did manage to find the net twice in 10 minutes. Only one,however,was deemed legitimate.
The goal that wasnt and the chances that were missed came back to haunt India as they drew the match 3-3 and crashed out of the quarterfinal race on goal difference. But at the end of the 45th minute,as India scored their third goal,this eventuality looked remote. It was a supreme exhibition of everything that is good about Indian hockey. A product of sublime skill,searing pace and remarkable positional awareness. For an India fan,a rare moment of bliss.
Ramandeep Singh,who had largely been anonymous in the game (make that in the entire tournament),gave a glimpse of his genius. With his back to the Korean goal,he collected a long ball from captain Manpreet Singh,dodged a defender with a 180-degree swivel in the blink of an eye and released Satbir Singh with a perfect through-ball on top of the D.
Satbirs only touch saw the ball flying to Mandeep Singh stationed to left of the goalkeeper. The athletic Mandeep deflected it on the dive into the goal. Three touches. Three-one.
Two minutes later,India thought it was 4-1 when Mandeeps strike from the right,deflected off Malak Singhs stick,bulged the net. However,the umpire concluded the initial hit was above knee height and therefore dangerous. India reviewed. The TV umpire upheld the decision.
Moments later,Mandeep,a constant threat in the Korean circle,hit it wide with an open goal at his mercy. Nevertheless,India appeared determined to make it 6-1 against Korea for the second time in two months. They were so good too good,perhaps,to last.
The tide turned in the 54th minute when Manpreets foul on Mookyoung Lee earned him a green card and Korea a hit from outside the Indian circle. The resultant hit found Amit Rohidass legs and a penalty corner was awarded.
Seungju You stepped forward. With five goals up to this point,all off PCs (one of them in this match),the drag-flicker was Koreas most dangerous weapon. He lived up to the reputation with an uppish flick,bang to the centre of the goal.
With India down to 10 men at this stage,Korea sensed their only chance and seized it. They got another PC in the next minute and Seungju was on target again,scoring his third goal of the night.
Suddenly,India panicked. The momentum was gone and the hosts,cohesive moments ago,became unrecognisably sloppy. Korea saw out the final 10 minutes with resolute defending,including the goalkeeper repelling a Mandeep attempt in the dying seconds.
As the buzzer went off,the Indians threw their sticks in frustration and slumped to the ground. The DJ,as if on cue,played Gangnam Style. The Koreans,though ecstatic,were perhaps too tired or too relieved,or both,to react to it.
They will now face Pool D toppers Malaysia for a place in the semi-finals. India will slug it out against Argentina for 9-12th place classification match.
what they achieved
There are a lot of positives that India can draw from this tournament. They created plenty of chances in all of their matches. They won the second half against the Netherlands,could have scored at least 10 goals against Canada and were all over Korea in the last five minutes of the first half,when scored two goals,and in those magical 10 minutes in the second half.
They are guilty of not taking their chances,but not guilty of not playing well. The Junior World Cup would have been a great platform to announce their arrival,but not winning it or not finishing high up here doesnt mean the end of the world. In fact,as has been written in this space before,its not a definitive indicator of the future. Teams that have won it in the past have gone on to underachieve at the senior level. The 2001 batch is a case in point.
The challenge for Hockey India will now be to look beyond the result and persist with this group of players. They are worth keeping the faith in. Those 10 minutes in the second half showed it.