Four Nations Invitational Hockey: Wayward India survive scare against Japan to walk away with 4-2 win
The amount of turn-overs that India gave to Japan, especially in the third and fourth quarters, any other team with a better co-ordinated effort upfront would have punished India.
It was in the 47th minute in the fourth quarter that Japan lined up for what could have been a big kill for them. Shota Yamada, the man who had fired in Japan’s second penalty corner in the third quarter to equalise scores at 2-2, now had the opportunity to flick in a stroke and give Japan the lead. But in just a fraction of a second, the opportunity had come and gone, with the flick zipping past the left post.
India, already, in the final of the Four-Nation Invitational Hockey Tournament in Hamilton, New Zealand, gathered together their stuttering game and punished Japan with two late goals and run out 4-2 winners. India now faces Belgium in the final on Sunday. For the bronze, hosts New Zealand will play Japan.
It’s a match India would do well to analyse and forget. For the first time, in the tournament, across both legs of this Four-Nation tournament, India probably forgot the ‘structure’ in their hotel rooms. They were wayward, reckless, self-indulgent and at times fickle and frivolous. The amount of turn-overs that India gave to Japan, especially in the third and fourth quarters, any other team with a better co-ordinated effort upfront would have punished India.
It took one back to the Azlan Shah Cup in 2017 when India had to draw out from the depths of their talent to beat Japan 4-3 — a match in which Japan led 3-2 before Mandeep Singh got into the scoring act to get his hat-trick. On Saturday at Hamilton, Mandeep got the last touch on a Harjeet Singh shot to give India a 3-2 lead. But it’s also a match in which, Mandeep could have done more. In fact, it wouldn’t be fair to say that it was only Mandeep who played below-par, despite the goal.
The team as a whole was disappointing. One could argue that, having already achieved a place in the final, a less than energetic approach could be justified. But this is modern sport and a national team plays for pride rather than individual and personal pursuits.
Missing out on goals is a part of the game. But when structures collapse and players start losing first touch — playing to their own instincts, and not as a team — and completely overlook the opponent’s strength, then it’s a disservice.
Japan, without a win in this double-legged tournament, would rue their misses when they had the Indian defence carved out. They broke with speed and beat Rupinder Pal, Surender Kumar, Harmanpreet Singh and Birendra Lakra with ease. It was the Indian goal-keeper Krishan Pathak who came up with a couple of brilliant interceptions that kept India in the match. The conditions were trying for both the teams — hot and humid — but the end-to-end stuff began from the very first minute.
Surprisingly, if India wanted to take it easy and make their chances count, rotating and slowing down the pace would have suited them; but they pressed on. After initial bouts of entering each other’s striking circle, India drew first blood in the 12th minute. Harjeet Singh and Arman Qureshi flashing the ball between themselves while Vivek Sagar, a gem of a player himself, positioned himself perfectly to take the ball and slip it between the Japanese goal-keeper’s pads.
Japan’s equaliser came within two minutes. And it was a Lakra error, an easy turnover given to the Japanese who sprinted on to the left flank, and the push from Tanaka Seren hit the post and then Surender Kumar’s stick to go in. India were losing too many balls in the midfield. The team was just not coming together.
In the second quarter, India’s penchant for individual play continued. There was a distinct lack of discipline to hold the ball. Time and again, India lost the ball either on the flanks or gave a wrong pass. Japan, seeing India’s ragged play, positioned a forward upfront and a few aerial balls were dangerous. Kazumo Murata had a lovely chance with only Krishan in the front, but in his hurry, dragged the ball onto his own foot. And when India scored off their second penalty corner, it seemed the collective strength might be too much for Japan. It was a low Varun Kumar flick that deflected off the goal-keeper’s pads that gave India a 2-1 lead going into the break.
Yoshikawa Takashi, the Japanese goal-keeper, brought off a good save at the start of the third quarter. Immediately after that, Japan had their first penalty corner of the match but couldn’t control the flick. On the counter, India could have gone ahead when Mandeep and Arman moved up and gave the ball to Vivek, who shot well but was brilliantly blocked by Takashi.
Japan, meanwhile had earned a second penalty corner. And just like in the last match against Belgium, the Indian defenders erred by running first and Rupinder had to leave his runners position with India down to three defenders for the penalty corner. Japan seized the opportunity. Hirotaka Zendana made a 90-degree turn to give the ball to Shota Yamada who flicked into the empty left corner of the Indian goal. Already a defender short, India couldn’t keep the flick out. For Japan, it was a brilliant dummy that gave them the equaliser 2-2.
Japan pressed hard knowing that India were faltering, their defence coming apart like a pack of cards. Murata had another chance, yet another one-to-one with Indian goal-keeper Krishan, but in the time taken to take the ball to his left and hit a reverse shot, the Indian goal-keeper narrowed the angle as the ball deflected off him. The counter had come after India had given away the ball cheaply in the midfield.
The fourth quarter sizzled with some good moves and instances of atrocious defending. It was a turn-over off a Harmanpreet move deep into the Japanese half that saw a fast counter with Koji Yamasaki following up a rebound of Krishan’s pads. The resultant goal-bound shot hit Indian captain Manpreet Singh on the body. After consultation between the umpires, Japan was awarded a stroke and Shota Yamada blew it without even challenging the Indian goal-keeper. Still, Japan played well and Kentaro Fukuda came close to scoring, but Krishan yet again brought off a good save, coming off his line to pressurise Fukuda.
India also saved Japan’s third penalty corner when Hirotaka Zendana’s flick was deflected off the goal-keeper’s pads. India regained some semblance of control in the last five minutes of the match. Manpreet, on the edge of the Japanese striking circle, gave it to Harjeet, whose shot towards goal was edged in by the former. India breathed easy, and within a minute found the fourth goal when Ramandeep Singh, again on the top of the circle, took the ball to the right and found acres of space as his hard hit slammed into the Japanese circle.
In the last minute, India had two more penalty corners, but couldn’t score as the sixth-ranked side finally put it across the 16th-ranked Japanese. India now plays Belgium in the final on Sunday and the Olympic silver medallists would be thirsting for revenge after their 4-5 loss to India in the Pool match.
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