“Penalty corners are the most important aspect of modern hockey,” says hockey's record goal-scorer Sohail Abbas. —AFP Photo

“Penalty corners are the most important aspect of modern hockey,” says hockey's record goal-scorer Sohail Abbas. —AFP Photo

GUANGZHOU: Rivals are banking on their powerful penalty corner hitters to deliver when the Asian Games men’s field hockey semi-finals are played on Tuesday.

The strongly-built drag flickers, who take set-piece shots at the goal with lightening speed, have not disappointed so far in the 10-nation competition at the Aoti Hockey Centre.

Six of the top eight scorers in the preliminary league are penalty corner exponents with India’s Sandeep Singh leading the charge with 10 goals.

Veteran Sohail Abbas of Pakistan has six, while China’s Liu Yixian, the South Korean duo of Jang Jong-Hyun and Nam Hyun-Woo and Muhammad Imran of Pakistan have five each.

The two exceptions are Malaysian striker Azlan Misron, who has scored six goals and Korean forward Seo Jong-Ho, who has five.

“Penalty corners are the most important aspect of modern hockey,” said the 35-year-old Abbas, whose Pakistan clash with defending champions South Korea in the first semi-final.

“If the strikers don’t score themselves, they try to make sure the team earns penalty corners. It’s all part of the game.”

Abbas, who was recalled for the Asiad after being left out of last month’s Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, is the world’s leading scorer with 316 goals.

But the Koreans, seeking a hat-trick of titles after winning in 2002 and 2006, say Abbas’ mighty presence does not worry them.

“Sohail is a wonderful striker, but our own Jang and Nam are equally good,” said Korean striker Seo Jong-Ho. “We also have a lot of faith in our goalkeeper.”

Nam added South Korea was fortunate to have two solid penalty corner hitters in their team.

“It helps us to plan better,” he said. “We like to keep the other side guessing whether Jang or I will take the hit.”

India, the only team with an all-win record in the league who meet Malaysia in the other semi-final, owe their success to Sandeep’s precise drag-flicks.

“Our penalty corner strategy has worked out well so far, but we must try something different in the semi-final because the other side would have studied videos of our matches,” Sandeep said.

India have been tested just once in four games when they beat Pakistan 3-2, where Sandeep scored twice and Abbas’ lone penalty corner shot was brilliantly saved by goalkeeper Bharat Chetri.

But Indian captain Rajpal Singh said it would be dangerous to depend entirely on Sandeep’s prowess to see them past Malaysia.

“They are a good team and we must take all the chances that come our way,” he said. “Winning all league matches won’t count if we lose the semi-final.”

Malaysia will rely on strikers Misron and Hafifihafiz Hanafi as they attempt to make their first Asian Games final after going unbeaten in the league with three wins and a draw.

The competition assumes significance since the winner of Thursday’s gold medal clash will get a direct entry into the 2010 London Olympics. —AFP