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2018 Asian Champions Trophy
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Relaxed Pakistan has an edge over tense Indians (10/28/2018)
--Shashank Gupta
The Indian in me wishes that India should win today. However, having witnessed the matches during the last 10 days at the Hero Asian Champions Trophy 2018, Muscat, I believe it’s mildly tilted towards Pakistan.

On any given day, 13th-ranked Pakistan appear to be much-relaxed and in-control of whatever they do. They have seen their worst already -- losing to India in the pool-encounter followed by their coach leaving the tournament in the fallout – and thus, there’s isn’t much for them to lose. Even when Rizwan Muhammad Sr. was out in the semis -- he won't be playing the Final either -- they showed considerable character and resilience skills against Malaysia.

Much superior in ranking, World's 5th India, responds differently when the opposition applies pressure on them; Their accuracy takes a beating. In the penultimate pool-encounter where India drew with Malaysia, the latter applied strong defensive tactics on the Indians, thereby creating huge pressure on the Indian forward-line to score. The result: With the fewest chances India got, their shots went haywire.

When posed with a surprise element, like the way it happened in the match against Japan in the semis, India seem to be lacking a ‘Plan B’.

Talk about Pakistan Hockey to anyone in crowd and they pity the pathetic of their Hockey. Everyone, including the Indians, wish that Pakistan Hockey must become better.

Coming to the finals, Pakistan need goals early-on in the game. Interestingly, that’s the same strategy which works for India, delicately though.

India hasn’t shown much mettle in crunch-situations, so it would be difficult for them to pull-back if they are trailing on the scoreboard. Their efficiency in shots, passes and traps, during such times, is sloppy.

In fact, except for the match against Pakistan in the pool-encounter, where India trailed 0-1 for about 23 minutes, there has been no other occasion when India has trailed. Their game in the first-half when they are trying to open the score from 0-0, versus when they enter the second half with 1-1 on the board, is remarkably different. In the latter, India starts to show symptoms of desperation.

India does have a strong and solid defense-line consisting of Harmanpreet, Gurinder, Varun and Surender. However, with Akashdeep and Mandeep mostly lingering around in the opponent circle, there is a huge gap between the midfielders and the center-forwards. This can be worrisome for India.

On numerous occasions both the Forwards have been systemically marked by the opponents and haven’t been given the space for the wild-shot at the goal. In such situation, even their Coach Harendra Singh remarked earlier, they should be creating short-corners, an area, where India is superior to Pakistan. It has two drag-flickers, Harmanpreet and Varun versus just one (Bilal) in the Pakistan.

On the other hand, the flanks consisting of Gurjant and Dilpreet appear to be more promising, often seen handling affairs on their own.

In the midfield, Sumit, Nilkanta, Lalit and Chinglensana are often seen forming the fulcrum of Indian-attacks, feeding the strikers. For Pakistan, their Forward-line is not as superior and athletic as Indian strikers, but an experienced Midfield and Defense compensate for it. Md. Atiq, Bilal, Muhammad Irfan (Sr) in the Defense, do get considerable support from the midfielders and their ability to handle pressure and continuous attacks from the opponents appears superior.

If the game goes into shoot-outs, India’s best available bet is Sreejesh, provided he is on the field at the end of scheduled time. This hasn’t been the case until now. In all previous games, in the second half, the other Indian goalkeeper, Krishna Pathak has been manning the cage. He has displayed terrific character but performing in the Shoot-out in a Finals in front of roaring Indian and Pakistan fans is a different ball-game.

On the other hand, Pakistan’s Imran Butt appears to be solid and in good-form. What works in his favor is he has his brother, Rehan Butt, a former Goalkeeper himself, right beside him.

If Pakistan scores early goals, and play their natural game in defense and midfield, the game could tilt in their favor. However, if India can take an early lead and their Forward-line falls back to help the Defense-line, it will be a smooth-sailing for India. If Indian trails, they need to play an open-game with resilience and create penalty-corners.

Having said all that, the key remains that expectations from India to win the tournament is much more than it is on Pakistan.

For Pakistan, winning would have a morale boost considering they are currently ranked 13th in the World: an all-time low for Pakistan Hockey. For India, it’s like: ‘After missing out the Asian Games Gold, at least they should win Gold here (in Asian Champions Trophy).’

That one fact, can have a lot of effect on the mind of players. In crunch situations like a Finals, where the clock will appear to be ticking faster than usual, ability to withstand pressure and 'what's on stake to lose?' will matter more than anything else.

That’s where Pakistan has the edge.

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