New Delhi: India have done what Pakistan couldn't. A 2-0 win over Malaysia in the semi-final of the 9th Asia Cup in Ipoh took India a step closer to next year's FIH World Cup, while archrivals Pakistan will have to sit out of the quadrennial event after losing the first semi-final to South Korea 2-1.
VR Raghunath (8th minute) gave India an early lead on a penalty corner and, along with an ever improving Rupinderpal Singh, managed to guard India's thin lead until the 60th minute when promising 18-year-old striker Mandeep Singh gave India the cushion they needed to go unscathed in the last 10 minutes.
However, it was Pakistan's loss to South Korea in the first semi-final that further lifted Indian hopes as they needed to finish ahead of the archrivals to remain in contention for a place in the World Cup to be held next year at The Hague, Netherlands.
Drag-flicker VR Raghunath leading India's celebrations after he scored the first goal. (Hockey India)
It will be wrong to say Malaysia played any lesser hockey than India. In fact, they were the ones who had more shots at goal and came close to negating India's 1-0 lead on at least five occasions, but were let down by their conversion rate.
The Saari brothers - Faizal and Fitri - combined on several occasions but lacked the final bit of coordination they needed to convert their moves into goals. However, credit must also be given to India's star goalkeeper PR Sreejesh who was equal to the task and stood like a wall in front of the goal. It was 1-0 at half-time.
India earned a penalty corner early, though it was Malaysia who first launched an attack, almost going into the lead on two occasions. Raghunath continued with his impressive PC-conversion rate and rocketed his flick into top of the net.
The second half saw the same Malaysian story of hits and misses. India too couldn't find the second goal they were searching for and took 25 minutes into the second half to score when Rupinder's clever pass found Ramandeep Singh. The impressive striker - who made his debut in this tournament - beat the Malaysian 'keeper with a through ball to Mandeep who was left with the simple task of dribbling with the ball into the open Malaysian goal.
How India have only 'virtually' qualified for the World Cup
There's slight assumption involved when we say India have qualified for the World Cup, which in true sense isn't confirmed yet. In case South Korea successfully defend their Asia Cup title, the Oceania championship will decide India's fate. This is how:
There are two gates from where Malaysia and India can sneak into the World Cup - Asia and Oceania. Malaysia are among the first reserves after finishing fifth at the Hockey World League semi-final in Johor Bahru and India among second reserves by virtue of their 6th-place finish in Rotterdam.
If Korea beat India in the Asia Cup final, then Malaysia go through from Asia as first reserves since Korea have already qualified thanks to Argentina winning the Pan American championships.
In that scenario, India will await the winner of Oceania championship that will be fought between Australia, New Zealand and Fiji. Since Australia and New Zealand have already qualified for the World Cup and one of them is expected to win Oceania, India will benefit from the vacant Oceania spot to qualify as second reserve.
So bottom line for India is: Beat Korea in the Asia Cup final on Sunday for a sure-shot World Cup spot.