INCHEON: Arch-rivals India and Pakistan face off in a mouth-watering field hockey final at the Asian Games on Thursday with a place in the 2016 Olympics at stake.
Millions of fans in both nations will be glued to their television screens for the title clash which earns the winner a ticket to Rio de Janeiro and the loser left facing a hazardous qualification route.
India and Pakistan last met in an Asiad final way back at New Delhi in 1982 where the Indians suffered a stunning 1-7 rout in front of their hown fans that included then prime minister Indira Gandhi.
In Beijing in 1990 when Pakistan claimed the gold and India the silver, there was no final since the winner was decided after a round-robin league.
Eight-time Olympic champions India have won the Asiad title just twice, both in the Thai capital of Bangkok in 1966 and 1998.
In contrast, defending champions Pakistan are the most successful team in the continental games with eight golds, highlighted by four successive wins over India in a final from 1970 to 1982.
Pakistan, coached by former international Shahnaz Sheikh, start as favourites following their 2-1 win over India in the preliminary league.
But Sheikh was worried by the failure of his strikers to score against Malaysia in Tuesday’s semi-final which ended in a 0-0 draw before Pakistan edged ahead 6-5 in the tie-breaker.
“We played better than them but just could not score,” said Sheikh, a former striker hismelf. “We don’t want to make the same mistake again.
“Fans love an India-Pakistan game. I am sure the final will be exciting.“
India upset hosts South Korea 1-0 in the semi-final through Akashdeep Singh’s 44th minute winner, but face a tougher test against Pakistan’s goalkeeper Imran Butt, the star of the shoot-out win against Malaysia.
The Indians, coached by Australian Terry Walsh, will also bank on reliable goalie P. R. Sreejesh to block the Pakistani forwards as star midfielder and captain Sardar Singh attempts to control the game upfront.
“The final is a very important game for our young side,” said Walsh.
“There was a lot of energy shown against the Koreans but we must seize the chances that come our way.“
South Korea and Malaysia will contest the bronze medal play-off ahead of the final.