Punjab win hockey nationals

BANGALORE-The match-winner might have been an own goal, but a young Punjab emerged deserving champions with a 2-1 result against experienced Air India in the final of Hockey India’s Senior Men’s National Hockey Championship.

It was only fitting that the trophy went to the spiritual home of hockey and Tuesday’s success completed a double delight for Punjab, who last month had won the junior national title.

Most of the action came in the second-half when Punjab took the lead through Prabhdeep Singh (36th) but Air India equalised in the 38th minute when Vinaya Vokkaliga converted a penalty corner.

With the teams locked 1-1 at the end of regulation period, the extra-time or golden goal period came into play and two minutes on restart, Gurbaaj Singh’s hit from the right went into the goal off defender Joga Singh’s stick for an own goal and the match-winner.

Earlier, Karnataka beat last year’s champions Haryana 2-1 to finish third with goals by MB Aiyappa (24th) and VR Raghunath (41st). For Haryana, Sardar Singh (60th) scored their lone goal.

Overall, Punjab, bronze medallists last year, were worthy winners of the trophy given the abundant talent in the side besides the youth that brimmed over with enthusiasm.

Air India, rather lucky to make the final after a close 3-2 win over Karnataka in the semifinals Monday, played as well as they could, but on the day, their best was not enough.

The teams shared honours in the first-half with both having fair share of scoring opportunities but neither was able to convert. The emphasis was more on caution rather than all-out aggression.

Air India sought to slow down the pace while youthful Punjab showed greater urgency but, like their rivals, came up short at the finish.

If anything, Air India looked better organised and sharper compared to their lacklustre performance in the semifinals while Punjab seemed to struggle to break free to play at a faster pace that would have suited them.

The second-half began on a rousing note with Prabhdeep putting Punjab in the lead as he scored off a Satbir-Akashdeep move from the right hardly a minute into the session.

Not to be out done, Air India equalised soon after as Vinaya converted a penalty corner two minutes later and the match sparked to life.

The proceedings swung from end to end as the pace noticeably picked up. Punjab had the better of chances, including five penalty corners, but their specialist Gurjinder Singh, who had converted two apiece in the previous two rounds, failed.

Also, Air India goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh, the goal notwithstanding, enjoyed a good session as he brought off some quality saves to keep his team afloat.

On their part, Air India had fewer openings, one of them being when Vikram Pillay, one of the three brothers in the team, drove wide off the wrong foot with goalkeeper out of position.

With neither team able to stamp its authority on the proceedings the game flowed into extra-time and golden goal period.

With a minute of extra-time, Punjab clinched the issue with an own goal as Gurbaaj Singh’s hard hit into the circle struck the boards off Joga Singh’s stick.

An ecstatic Punjab team coach Baljit Singh Saini said: “Obviously, it is a wonderful moment for Punjab who last month had won the junior national title and this team here has seven players from that team.

“The victory is very special also because we beat such an experienced side as Air India who have so many Olympians and international stars. We knew it would be a tough game and had a particular strategy.

“In the first-half, we opted for a half-court press but in the second session we changed it to full-court press and you could see the difference. We attacked a lot and it made a difference,” said Saini.

Prabhdeep Singh was adjudged Man-of-the-Final, while special awards were presented to Arjun Halappa of Air India (Best Attacker of tournament), Gurjinder Singh of Punjab (Best Defender of tournament) and MB Aiyappa of Karnataka (Upcoming Player of the Tournament).–IANS