Air India and Punjab knocked out last year’s finalists, Karnataka and Haryana, respectively, in the two contrasting semi-finals of the men’s National hockey championship here Monday.
While Air India authored a great escape script by defeating Karnataka 3-2 after trailing 0-2 with 20 minutes left of an ill-tempered semi-final match with Vinaya Vokkaliga netting the winner just as the final hooter went, Punjab, playing with positive intention and discipline, ousted defending champions Haryana 4-1, a result that was anything but a surprise.
With Air India, it was a case of a team winning despite playing badly but scoring more goals than their opponents, though Karnataka literally played into their hands by giving in to provocations rather than maintaining calm.
After Pundalik Bellary (32nd) and Nitin Thimmaiah (44th) put them 2-0 ahead, Karnataka players lost their cool with skipper and Olympian. VR Raghunath himself being in the forefront of questioning umpiring decisions.
Under the circumstances, it was a matter of time before the experienced but ageing Air India came back into the match as a stick-check on Shivendra Singh in the 50th and a “kicks” infringement nine minutes later fetched them two penalty strokes that Arjun Halappa converted to restore parity before Vinaya scored off a penalty corner just as the final hooter went for the match-winner.
It was very obvious that a few players of both teams carried baggage of past incidents and it led to frequent flaring of tempers that eventually resulted in yellow card suspensions to rival skippers Halappa and Raghunath, both of whom could not exert any control or discipline in their respective teams.
However, Air India lived a charmed life as Karnataka forwards missed a good half-a-dozen chances until Bellary scored off a Rafeeq Sheikh pass in the 32nd minute. The hosts went 2-0 up when Nitin Thimmaiah found the boards with a reverse hit at the end of a solo run in the 44th.
When Air India received first of the two penalty strokes after a stick-check offence on Shivendra, all hell seemed to break loose. Karnataka protested the decision and their anger spiller over a little later when another penalty stroke was awarded to Air India.
Halappa, who converted both the strokes and Raghunath then came together leading to both being sent off on yellow cards. Karnataka lost another player when Nikin Thimmaiah was also sent to the sin bin.
In the final minute, Air India received their ninth penalty corner that the Karnataka players hotly disputed, but in vain. Vinaya took a shot that came off the goalkeeper and he was quick to score off the rebound for the match-winner.
Earlier, Punjab put in a pleasing performance to outclass Haryana with full-back and drag-flick specialist Gujrinder Singh scoring twice (15th, 21st) and Satbir Singh (51st) and skipper Sarvanjit Singh (55th) one apiece before Haryana notched a consolation goal in the 58th minute through Naveen Antil.
Punjab looked the better drilled outfit with a lot of character and composure while Haryana committed far too many errors that put them on the defensive for much of the match before Naveen Antil scored a consolation goal 12 minutes from close.