Ordos: India staged a remarkable fightback to hold Pakistan to a 2-2 draw in their last league match before depending on Malaysia's heroics to set up a summit showdown with their arch rivals in the Asian Champions Trophy hockey tournament on Friday.
While the 2-2 draw was enough to give Pakistan a berth in the final, India's passage came only because Malaysia came from the dead to beat Japan 3-2 in their last league game. Malaysia were required to get the better of Japan to help India reach the final.
Unbeaten in the tournament, India dominated the barren first half but conceded two goals in two minutes to trail 0-2 by the 42nd minute only to come from behind to draw the match under chilly and windy conditions.
Pakistan took a 2-0 lead through Muhammad Waqas (40th minute) and Muhammad Irfan (42nd) but India responded immediately with Rupinder (46th) finding the target from an indirect penalty corner while Danish Mujtaba scored the equaliser in the 53rd minute.
Pakistan on 10 points and India with 9 points will battle for supremacy in the final on Sunday. Japan and Malaysia will now again play for the 3rd/4th position as they finished on an identical seven points.
Korea will play China for the 5th/6th position. Korea have seven points but an inferior goal difference (-1) pushed them down the table.
The India-Pakistan clash turned out to be a thriller as both teams played their hearts out.
Mujtaba's equaliser, a deflection from his stick, was a tad controversial as New Zealand umpire Simon Taylor did not initially award a goal. But the Indians appealed and the South Korean umpire, after consultations with Taylor, let the goal stand.
Under seven degree temperature and chilly wind blowing, both India and Pakistan started off slowly testing each other on the flanks and in the midfield. No quarter was given by both the sides in the first five minutes.
Slowly India increased the tempo as the right flank stretched the Pakistan defence creating openings in the centre. Danish Mujtaba, Gurwinder Singh Chandi, Ravi Pal and Sunil sent some perfect crosses into the Pakistan striking circle.
But the forwards were either bunched up or not in the file where they could have latched onto the cross. Once captain Rajpal Singh sped down the right flank but Yuvraj Walmiki and Sunil stood together and could not pick up the cross that beat the Pakistan goalkeeper Imran Shah.
The Indian midfield was outstanding except a few errors that came under pressure. Ravi Pal and especially Gurbaj Singh were the players who kept the Pakistan defence under pressure.
If there was a man-of-the-match, it should have been Gurbaz who played defensive hockey and when the need arose kept the right flank and the forwards well fed with through balls.
India's penalty corner weakness was again exposed when they had two in succession in the 20th and 21st minutes but both were way off target. It was critical to hit the corners of the net but for some reason Rupinder Pal and Raghunath went for the middle and the shots went straight to the Pakistani goalkeeper who saved them effortlessly.
In the 23rd minute, Pakistan had their first look at the Indian goal when Shafqat Rasool found himself face-to-face with Bharat Chettri in the Indian goal. Shafqat shot straight to Bharat who padded it away to safety.
At the break, both the teams were locked goalless.