Siegfried Aikman remains the eternal optimist. Hours before Japan’s semi-final encounter with India, he does believe there could be a surprise, an upset. “As long as I live, as long as there is one second to play, we have hope,” he said in an interaction with the media; the very nature of a pre-match (semi-final) press conference giving the match much-needed credibility.
Otherwise, how do you look the following numbers — in the previous 13 matches, India have lost none, they have scored 61 goals and conceded 12 and during that period, they have scored five-plus, five times with scores like 10-2, 6-0, 8-0 and 9-0; the last two scorelines coming in the 2018 Asian Games (8-0) and at the 2018 Asian Champions Trophy (9-0).
Yet, it’s Japan who are the Asian Games Champions and not India. Despite India beating them 8-0 in Jakarta. It’s a David vs Goliath story waiting to happen. It’s a story that Aikman would love to see transpire — David (Japan) slays Goliath (India). But is it possible that on a windy Bhubaneswar evening when the sea breeze from the Bay of Bengal fills the cavernous Kalinga Stadium, Japan can pull out a few rabbits from their inexperienced hats? In a way, this is the best chance that Japan have.
Graham Reid’s India have been stuttering. Yes, they have scored 10-0 twice and beaten Poland 3-1, but the fluency and control that a side ranked No 5 in the world need to show have been missing. Experience, superior skills have ensured India put it past their opponents. Hell, even the players shadows would have beaten Russia and Uzbekistan, with due respect to the teams. There is every chance that India would raise their game and if that happens, Japan wouldn’t have to do much. But for that cohesion, flow and stability in the defence, midfield, and forward-line is required.
Japan understand India's play and would surely like to absorb the early raids. Graham Reid, in his first tournament with the Indian team, admits that knockouts are tricky. “I think that's the key. This must be a normal game for us. We must prepare like we normally would. If you ask me this question before the (our) first game, I think I will say we will be preparing the same way. We will be focussing on the first few minutes of the game and move forward from there. We have tactics in place and that's what will happen.”
Before the FIH Men’s Series Finals started, this wasn’t the scenario that Aikman and Japan wanted. A safe prediction was an India vs Japan final. But the 2-2 draw with the United States gave both teams seven points apiece with the Americans having a superior goal difference. Aikman had then said the Japanese team wasn’t getting much exposure after the Asian Games and that budget cuts had also happened with the national team. In India, it would be unheard of having an Asian Games champion undergoing budget cuts. But Japan wants to put money where they believe they have a realistic chance of entering the top six at the 2020 Olympics. All of this has strengthened the resolve of the Japanese to prove a point here in Bhubaneswar.
India are in a worse spot. They couldn’t qualify directly by winning the Asian Games and haven’t played any hockey after the World Cup except for the Azlan Shah tournament in Malaysia where they finished runners-up. This is a run-up to qualifying for Tokyo and the team is in a rebuilding session. It’s obvious that the national team would require more tournaments, international matches before they start understanding or be responsive to Reid’s philosophy.
Reid believes "opportunities are being created" but the fact is that "opportunities" were being created before Reid and with almost every coach of any pedigree. It’s the putting away of the opportunities that need to be tackled and solved. The team also seems low on intensity but that could just be the tournament itself and the lack of a tough opponent. After a three-day hiatus, India might just face an opponent who could counter-punch and squeeze in a few PCs to make it into an exciting and even contest.
At the Asian Games, India were 3-0 up in the first two quarters. Japan were pushed back early as India created pandemonium. In the first two quarters itself, the Indian defence had held up solidly when Kenta Tanaka and Shoda Yamada had found space and opportunity. In the match against Poland, India was often caught on the counterattack and that would be an area that Aikman would surely investigate.
Former India coach Harendra Singh, under whom India beat Japan 8-0 (Asian Games), 9-0 (Asian Champions Trophy) and 3-2 (ACT semi-final), feels that the Indian forwards are not applying themselves. “The decision-making inside the circle is not happening,” he explains. “The striker is not going through the process. If the forwards don’t follow a process but only look for goals, it will not happen. Skills have to be merged with technique to get results.”
Harendra believes Japan are a good team and if they play within their limitations, keep a tight defence and use the counter, it will be a good match. “They are always a dark horse,” he says. “There has been a cultural, behavioural and an attitude change in the Japanese hockey team. Now they intercept smartly and counter very strongly. If India lose the ball in the midfield, they will pay a price.”
Yet, Harendra believes India will play to potential and move into the final. “These boys can play from memory also and if the defence plays a solid game, then the opportunities upfront will increase manifold and goals will come.”
The occasion should lift India. And the opponent. In the last semi-final played with Japan in the Asian Champions Trophy, India won 3-2 after both the teams were tied 1-1 at the break. India had scored through Gurjant Singh, Chinglensana and Dilpreet Singh; all the three are not playing this tournament.
Harendra goes back to Jakarta and gives the reason for that 8-0 win. “Japan is not good at one versus one and if India take them on, space will be created, and they will panic.”
It was in 2015 in a Test match that Japan drew 1-1 with India and then in 2013 at the Asian Champions Trophy Japan beat India 2-1. India had sent in 13 juniors to play the Asian Champions Trophy. Incidentally, the Indian team that lost to Japan had Amit Rohidas, Surender Kumar, Manpreet Singh as captain, Mandeep Singh, Akashdeep Singh, and Ramandeep Singh, all of whom would line-up today against Japan.
“Early goals are the answer,” feels Harendra against a side like Japan. “India needs to score early to play better hockey and also have command over the game.” But at the same time, Harendra also says to be "ready for a surprise" from Aikman. “His biggest strength is that he can change the style of play at any moment, turn the tactics around and will always look for a result.”
Reid is not concerned with the past. “A semi-final is always a different game,” says the Australian. “I am always a believer that yesterday's result not necessarily determines today's result. I don't drag too much into reading past performances. Japan played very well last night, and we have them in the semis. We will be trying to win the game and play the best we can.”
On being asked about an India win, Aikman replied, “India win? Maybe, but it's not done. Still at this moment, we strongly believe we can win. It's a hypothetical question as of now. A match is over when it is over. Statistically, India should win.”
Optimism can be like a coin; one does not know which side it benefits.
Updated Date: Jun 14, 2019 10:42:29 IST