India edged past South Korea 3-2 in a thrilling encounter at the Mayor Radhakrishnan stadium in Chennai to remain atop the group stage standings of the Asian Champions Trophy. Nilakanta Sharma (6'), Harmanpreet Singh (PC, 23') and Mandeep Singh scored for India while Kim Sunghyun (12') and Yang Jihun (PC, 58') were on target for South Korea.
The see-saw nature of the game can be illustrated best by two stats: India had 22 circle penetrations to South Korea's 11, but had only four penalty corners to their 11. India also had fewer shots on goal (10 vs 13).
South Korea had disappointed in their first three matches (a narrow win over Japan notwithstanding) but India weren't taking things easy and that was evident when Nilakanta opened the scoring in the sixth minute. The goal, though, belonged as much to its creator - Sukhjeet Singh - as it did the scorer. Receiving the ball with his back to goal on the byline inside the circle, Sukhjeet first turned around to face his marker before swerving right, left, then right again to open up space where previously there was none. From there he smashed in a square ball across the face of the goal and Nilakanta was on hand to tap it in.
South Korea, though, came roaring back and equalised within six minutes. Jung Manjae drove a long ball into the circle, where Kim Sunghyun trapped it and rocketed a reverse into the near post past a hapless Krishan Pathak.
What followed was a bit of a lull as both sides tested each other's midfield strength and tried to establish. Till the 23rd minute when India won three penalty corners in quick succession. Harmanpreet Singh converted in trademark emphatic fashion - powering home a dragflick through the legs of the first rusher and the goalkeeper.
Harmanpreet shone through that second quarter, making a couple of crucial interceptions at the back late on as South Korea looked to find a way back into the game.
India started off the third quarter with a casual unforced error of a PC give-away after Harmanpreet's driven backpass bounced off Amit Rohidas' stick and hit his leg. South Korea, though, couldn't hit the target with their flick and India immediately launched into offense mode. A neat passing move that swiftly moved the ball from defence to attack saw Shamsher Singh inbound a lovely pass to Mandeep in the circle. The veteran striker took a touch before leaning back and tomahawking a sensational effort into the far post. 3-1 and it looked like India were really starting to pull away like they had against Malaysia on Sunday.
Very early in the fourth quarter more quick passing saw India win a PC in the 47th minute. Harmanpreet's flick was stopped illegally by the defender on the line, and that meant penalty stroke. The keeper, though, pulled off a stunning save as Harmanpreet failed to see which he was diving to (the dive started well before stick had made connection with the ball).
South Korea then lay siege on the Indian goal in an effort that seemed to scream that they weren't going to give up this trophy without a fight this tournament. It started with a quick succession of three PCs won a minute after the penalty strike miss. They were all charged down by Amit Rohidas in a masterclass of a first-rushing display.
Just four minutes later South Korea again won three PCs, and two were charged down - this time by Manpreet Singh. The third drew a superb reflex save from veteran keeper PR Sreejesh.
India had attempted a lone counter in between this PC assault but Mandeep's powerful tomahawk and Sukhjeet's follow-up from close-range were both saved brilliantly by the keeper.
Varun Kumar then gifted South Korea a glorious chance after, as last man in defence, he passed it straight to Lee Hyeseung. Lee was swiftly closed down by Sreejesh and rushed his shot, which flew well over the goal. It was the kind of mistake that appears when a team gets frazzled, and this India team was just that for almost all of the last quarter.
With three minutes to go South Korea's relentless pressure told again and despite two sensational Sreejesh saved denying them he could do nothing about the third PC in the series which was blootered past the legs of the man on the post (Jarmanpreet Singh) and well past his reach by Yang Jihun.
As the clocked ticked down, India held their nerve to see off the late onslaught and take home all three points.
Earlier in the day, Malaysia beat Japan 3-1 to remain second in the standings, while Pakistan eased past China to move up to fourth. The top four (of six), go onto play in the semifinals.
India will now play Pakistan on Wednesday, August 9 at 8.30 PM.