Updated: December 18, 2021 8:05:34 am
It was a match that would have led some of the old-timers from both sides of the borders, masters of their art, to scoff in disbelief. Historically, India-Pakistan matches have been feistily contested but they seldom lacked individual brilliance and quality. Friday’s game between the two old rivals, in the round-robin stage of the Asian Champions Trophy, was the very antithesis of those games.
India won 3-1, extending their five-year unbeaten run against Pakistan and extending their lead at the top of the table of the competition. But it was a shoddy, erratic game in which the world’s 18th-ranked team managed to frustrate the world No.3 for long spells, drawing errors out of them and making a match out of what, on paper, should have been a no contest.
The gulf in class between India and Pakistan was evident all through the 60 minutes. India made most of the dangerous moves and dominated possession. Their passes, at least early on, were telegraphed, landing right at the teammate’s stick. Pakistan, often looked clueless. Their minds would tell them to run but their legs wouldn’t obey. They tried to find a teammate with their passes but the ball would instead go out of play.
It wasn’t a surprise when Harmanpreet Singh, on whom India are gradually becoming very reliant both in terms of scoring goals as well as defending, put India ahead in the ninth minute with his trademark, powerful drag-flick. The match followed the script until that moment.
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But Pakistan repeatedly send out reminders that even though they might not possess the skill and the fitness required to succeed at this level, they still have the grit that has always been associated with them. So, knowing full well that they couldn’t match India purely on only quality and fitness, Pakistan did the next best thing they could: frustrate them.
Siegfried Aikman, who is credited for making Japan a strong team defensively, hasn’t had a lot of time to work with the Pakistani players. But in a week or so he’s spent with them, the Dutchman – with Indian-Surinamese heritage – seems to have instilled a strong defensive structure, which enabled Pakistan to stay within the touching distance of India all through the match.
India isn’t a team known for its patience and calmness, although that has improved a bit under Graham Reid. However, as Pakistan packed players inside their own half, intercepting India’s passes and breaking their moves, the Tokyo Olympics bronze medalists started to get restless. And the longer Pakistan continued to thwart India, the more the mistakes started to creep in.
The match, then, followed a pattern. India would go full press, Pakistan would sit deep, intercept the ball, try to break forward, lose possession and India would have another go at them. It didn’t make for good viewing. But from Pakistan’s point of view, it was effective.
Akashdeep Singh, returning to the squad after being dropped for the Tokyo Olympics, doubled India’s lead in the 42nd minute, capitalizing on the hard work done on the left flank by Shilanand Lakra and Sumit. Pakistan, though, hit back three minutes later after Junaid Manzoor put one past Krishan Pathak.
It was end to end in the final quarter, with Pakistan going all out in search of the equaliser but severely lacking quality in the attack while India pressed for a third goal but were denied by goalkeeper Mazhar Abbas.
Ultimately, the pressure India applied paid off after they won a penalty corner in the 53rd minute, which was duly converted by Harmanpreet, who let out a huge roar, showing how hard his team was made to work for this win.
India, who will next play Japan on Sunday, might have won by a two-goal margin but it doesn’t reflect how resilient Pakistan were. Neither does it show how bereft of quality the match was.
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