The winner: The Indians are a adelighted lot after Ritu Rani's goal took the host past Italy. Photo: R.V. Moorthy
RITU Rani scores the all-important match winner
In a desperate situation, the Indian women's hockey team knew that it had to soothe its nerves and bolster its determination before taking on Italy in the final round robin league match of the Olympic qualifier.
The host barely managed to handle the pressure before edging past Italy 1-0 and reaching the summit clash against South Africa, at the National Stadium here on Friday.
After completing its league engagements, India gathered 10 points from five matches.
Ritu Rani scored the solitary goal in India's emotional victory, overall the seventh win over the same opponent, in front of the highly supportive home crowd.
India made a circumspective start before invading the rival citadel. However, it struggled to find harmony and lacked the conviction in executing its attacks. It wasted several chances, including four penalty corners, before the break.
The robust Italian defence closed the gaps effectively to frustrate the Indians.
Left winger Anuradha Devi, with her firmly-wrapped left thigh, was brave enough to shrug off her hamstring injury and take the field in the important match. She, however, clearly missed her rhythm.
Italy, placed second in the table before the match with eight points and needing at least a draw to play the final, never missed an opportunity to attack the Indian post. Nevertheless, it could not beat the home side's defence, led by Mukta Prava Barla and Subhadra Pradhan, which lifted its performance to make some quick interceptions and timely clearances.
The Indian backline showed its toughness to stop six short corners, which included two in the nerve-wracking final three minutes.
The Indians continued their quest for the first goal and tasted success in the 55th minute. Jaspreet Kaur launched a powerful flick off the sixth penalty corner and an alert Ritu Rani made no mistake in putting the rising rebound into the cage.
The Italians objected to the goal on the ground of dangerous play by Ritu. However, the umpire upheld the decision after consulting with her on-field colleague.
Eight minutes before the final hooter, the home team had another beautiful opportunity but Poonam Rani could not put her stick onto the fine 25-yard slapshot from Asunta Lakra.
The Italians pressed hard for the equalizer, which would have placed them in the final. However, it could not get the better of the Indian defence, which exhibited its steely resolve to save blushes for their team, which enjoyed the whole-hearted backing of the hockey loving spectators.
In another match, Ukraine beat Poland 1-0 to register its second win and make itself eligible to play the classification match for the third and fourth places against the Italy.
South Africa, boosted by Dirkie Chamberlain's hat-trick, rallied to hand Canada a 4-1 defeat and finish at the top of the table with 13 points.
The results: Ukraine 1 (Olena Ivakhnenko-28) bt Poland 0; South Africa 4 (Sulette Damons-23; Dirkie Chamberlain-41, 60, 62) bt Canada 1 (Thea Culley-16); India 1 (Ritu Rani-55) bt Italy 0.