India today were virtually assured of a berth in next year's World Cup after arch-rivals Pakistan suffered a 1-2 defeat at the hands of South Korea in the first semifinal of the ninth Asia Cup here today.
The defeat means Pakistan have missed the bus to the World Cup, which is to be held at The Hague, Netherlands, for the first time since the introduction of the event in 1971.
Only three more World Cup spots are up for grabs as nine teams have already secured their berths. And India and Malaysia more or less can heave a sigh of relief now as both the teams have almost booked their places for the mega-event along side South Korea, who took the eighth berth after Argentina won the Pan American Cup recently.
Even if they fail to win here, India and Malaysia would officially secure their World Cup berths after the end of the Oceania Championships, which either Australia or New Zealand is expected to win.
South Korea's goals came through penalty corner conversions from Jang Jong Hyun in the 31st minute and Lee Nam Yong in the 40th minute, while Pakistan's lone goal was scored by skipper Muhammad Imran (46th).
It was a keenly-contested first semifinal between Pakistan and South Korea, which started under persistent drizzle and damp conditions.
But as the match progressed the weather cleared up, allowing both the teams to play free-flowing hockey and entertain the crowd.
Pakistan had the lion's share of ball possession at least in the opening half while the Koreans put the Pakistani defence under pressure with counter-attacks.
Pakistan got the first scoring chance when they earned a penalty corner in the third minute but captain Muhammad Imran, the team's short corner specialist, shot wide.
Pakistan played attacking hockey but the Koreans were clever to seize the opportunities that came their way.
Korea earned two penalty corners in succession in the last five minutes of the opening half and they successfully took the lead to stun the Pakistanis.
Jang Jong Hyun converted the second short corner with a low dragflick to emerge as the tournament's highest scorer and help Korea enjoy a 1-0 lead at halftime.
Just five minutes after the change of ends, the Koreans shocked Pakistan again when Lee Nam Yong scored from a rebound after Jang Jong Hyun's flick was saved by rival goalkeeper Salman Akbar.
Pakistan managed to reduce the margin six minutes later when Imran converted a short corner in the 46th minute.
Thereafter, Pakistan pressed hard for the equaliser but the Korean defence stood tall to deny them.
The Pakistanis earned two penalty corners in the last 15 minutes but they failed to execute them, even as Korea defended valiantly.
In a desperate search for the equaliser, Pakistan even played the last two minutes of the game without their goalkeeper, infusing another forward in his place but that move too failed to yield any favourable result.
Pakistan will now play the losers of the second semifinal between India and Malaysia in the bronze medal match.