Bhubaneswar: In an evening powered by India’s phenomenal pace, mixed with an uncanny ability to pick out empty spaces, inter-woven with subtle skills, Japan’s early lead was not only neutralised, they were also handed out a lesson in scoring aptitude as India powered past the Asian Games Champions 7-2 to enter the final of the FIH Men’s Series Finals. By reaching the final which will be played against South Africa who beat the USA 2-1, India also made sure that they will play the concluding round of the Olympic qualifying, later in the year, in the battle to reach Tokyo 2020.
Japan scored through Kenji Kitazato (2nd) and Kota Watanabe (20th). For India, the scorers were, Harmanpreet Singh (7th), Varun Kumar (14th), Ramandeep Singh (23rd, 37th), Hardik Singh (25th), Gursahibjit Singh (43rd) and Vivek Sagar (47th).
It was a welcome return to scoring goals for Ramandeep. In the earlier matches, the Indian centre-forward, out with a knee injury for most of the year, did play a major part but the final touch needed to put the ball into goal wasn’t materialising. Against Japan, Ramadeep injected the PCs, provided the assists and scored twice, which could easily have been a hat-trick. Upfront, he was the busiest player along with Manpreet Singh in the midfield and Harmanpreet Singh in defence.
Looking back at the match, it was a surprise that Japan kept trying to outpace India. In fact, the same had happened in Jakarta at the Asian Games where they did try and match India step by step. But with an open midfield and a defence that was outrageously running upfront, Japan were sitting ducks on the counter. In no quarter, even after equalising 2-2, Japan tried to hold the ball, gain possession or even kill the pace of the game. The faster they ran through the midfield, turn-overs ensured that the Indian right flank overlapped with Mandeep, Ramandeep, Akashdeep and Nilakanta Sharma lying in wait to tear apart the Japanese defence.
One can either call Japanese coach Siegfried Aikman bold and audacious or foolishly rash. It was an audacious move that gave Japan the lead in the second minute. India had barely settled in, the fans still figuring out their bearings in the stadium when Japan saw the big, gaping hole in the Indian defence.
It was a lovely through from the midfield that saw Kenta Tanaka race into the Indian striking circle and give it to Kenji Kitazato whose flash zipped past a shocked Krishan Pathak.
Tactically, the big question for Japan was, what now? It was too early to retreat into a defensive structure. Japan attacked. After getting over the shock of conceding a second-minute goal, India got their structure back in place.
Immediately after that, Nilakanta Sharma saw his reverse shot saved by the Japanese goalkeeper. A minute later, Nilakanta, Ramandeep, Hardik played a one-to-one but Gursahibjit Singh’s hit deflected off the goalkeeper’s pads. India were slowly pressing. Varun Kumar’s aerial onto the right flank almost succeeded in opening the space but the trap was weak. The equaliser came in the seventh minute off India’s second PC. Harmanpreet Singh’s flick deflected off the keeper’s gloves into goal. At 1-1, India looked settled but needed to do more in the midfield to exert control.
The pace was breakneck. Both teams were at each other’s throat. In the pace generated by both, there was enough heat to set the turf alight. India looked the more penetrative. Ramandeep fluffed two chances followed by Akashdeep. Then came the third PC followed by the fourth from which Varun Kumar’s flick went between the goalkeeper and Masaki Ohashi. India had a 2-1 lead at the end of the 1st quarter.
Japan opened the second quarter at high speed. They sped down the right flank and entered the Indian striking circle at will. Kenta Tanaka once opened up Manpreet Singh inside out before swivelling back and taking hard hits at the Indian goal; both shots were saved by Sreejesh. The momentum was going back to Japan. In the 20th minute, Kota Watanabe found himself in front of Sreejesh after a lovely move down the left flank. The deft touch went into the Indian goal as Japan tied 2-2. At this stage, India did look rattled. Aikman, on the sidelines was smiling. Kenji Kitazato was zipping through the midfield as India struggled to rein him in.
In the 23rd minute, India got a break when Gurinder sped upfront and his hit was deflected in by Ramandeep. India led 3-2. The players hugged Ramandeep knowing how much that goal meant to him. Two minutes later, off a melee, the ball bounced off Simranjeet’s stick. Kitazato tried to control but instead gave it away to Hardik on top of the circle. The youngster’s powerful hit made it 4-2. Off the sixth PC, Varun’s flick hit the post and deflected away. Japan had two PCs in the dying moments of the second quarter. But India walked away unscathed 4-2 for the break.
Both teams were unrelenting in the third quarter too. India blew away their seventh and eighth PC, but finally got the fifth goal off the ninth PC. Manpreet was stopping the ball but the inject was wobbly so Manpreet took a straight hit which rebounded off the goalkeeper’s pads and an alert Ramandeep back flipped the shot for India to lead 5-2.
With two minutes left, Japan had their third PC and the deflection seemed good. The Japanese did their best in trying to convince the umpire, but a tournament run without a video replay is like not having a gen-set in an area with electricity issues. Arguing with the umpires unsettles the team and India took advantage when Nilakanta sped through and his pass was parallel to the goalkeeper where Gursahibjit only had to deflect in. At 6-2, the match was out of Japan’s hands.
In the fourth quarter, Japan were wilting as the pace was killing them. In the 47th minute, Gurinder sent in a cross which was hit into goal by Vivek Sagar. India led 7-2. Japan had three PCs in the fourth quarter but couldn’t score off any. They also got two yellow cards in the match which made things difficult for them. In trying to force the pace, Japan gave away too many turnovers. In fact, the final quarter was a story of turnovers.
For India, the circle penetrations crossed 25 with 15 shots on goal.
Japan’s coach Aikman said after the match, “I think we played well, were good in the game. I think we were unlucky. We conceded PCs which in our opinion were not PCs. Unfortunately, those turned into goals. We were able to fight back, recover. They scored again, we recovered. After that, we lost our head, discipline. Mentally you deal with disappointment. We could have handled it well. Still we tried to play as well as we could. But there was some frustration.”
Indian coach Graham Reid said, “The idea was to start better than what we did. Giving away a goal is always difficult.”
Aikman did agree that India were the more physical team. “India played a mature game. Hit the ball, were more physical. But it should be like that. We must deal with it. Our players are not used to this kind of physicality. We were a bit soft.”
Reid refused to divulge too much about the final on Saturday. “You have to wait and see. I am not going to give away too much. It was good to see some different variations tonight. It's also important that PC flickers get their rhythm.”
Things won’t be too different in the final against South Africa on Saturday. India will hunt for opportunities. South Africa have pace and they will counter-attack. But in the dismantling of Japan, India can’t luxuriate in the excesses of it; there is a still a final to be won.
Updated Date: Jun 15, 2019 10:49:22 IST