Ahead of what should be a busy season, the onus was on national men’s hockey coach Sjoerd Marijne to rejuvenate a side that was only recently sliding dangerously towards under performance. Apart from a hiccup in the fourth minute when Japan equalised, the Indian team steadied the ship, brought stability in the midfield, plugged holes in the defence to finally find their verve and soundly thrash Japan 5-1 to start their campaign in the Asia Cup on a winning note in Dhaka.
SV Sunil’s third minute goal was regulation stuff. A lovely one-to-one with Akashdeep Singh and Sunil then ran around the Japanese goalkeeper Yoshikawa Takashi to slip the ball into an empty net. It seemed the rattled Japanese might capitulate. But it was India who took it easy. Japan counter-attacked from the left wing and a cross was deflected in by Kenji Kitazato past the outstretched Suraj Karkera.
Within a minute, Japan was back. It was a cardinal sin by the Indian defence to not fall back into a planned structure that comes from hours of drills. Suddenly Japan had elevated themselves into worthy opponents. For the next few minutes, they pressed hard, rotated the ball around both the flanks and made life really difficult for the young Dipsan Tirkey, playing his first serious level senior tournament. He did good and when stuck for space, ensured that the experienced Sardar Singh was given the ball.
Sardar was playing full back, a sight not familiar with hockey lovers. He looked a bit unsure in the first two quarters not in releasing the ball but in terms of trying to curb his natural instinct to attack. But come the third and fourth quarter, he had the territory and there were moments that he commanded that space enabling Harmanpreet Singh to make a few runs through the middle.
he tactic of playing him as a defender given the skills that he has surely paid off. It will be interesting to see that control and fall back energy against opponents who have speed and pace in their attacks, especially the Belgians and the Dutch. But against the Japanese, he was in the right place at the right time. For moments in the third quarter, you could sense Sardar straining at the leash trying to curb his attacking powers as he back-pedalled constantly regaining his position.
The match roared back into life when Lalit Upadhyay, for long the beacon of style and subtle talent, came into his own in the 22nd minute. Trapping a high ball from the midfield in the Japanese striking circle, he almost took a 300 degree turn and let loose a reverse hit that beat Takashi in the Japanese goal. The shot was high and fast. But the brilliance of the trap and the skill shown in the turn was nothing short of world class.
At the break, while Japan went off to the changing room, India sat to the right of the turf as Marijne tried to explain the deficiencies of the first two quarters. India was leading 2-1 at the interval and needed a couple of more goals to make the issue safe to conserve energy for the rest of the matches to come.
Off a midfield attack, Sunil played in tandem with Ramandeep Singh to create a move on the right flank as Ramandeep given generous space by the Japanese hammered the ball past the goalkeeper. The umpire pointed towards goal but the Japanese thought the ball had come in from outside the net. Finally, the video umpire upheld the decision as India led 3-1.
The midfield under Manpreet Singh was now flowing well with Sumit playing an attacking role down the right flank. With more attacking options available now that the field had been stretched, India was dominating the third quarter. Whatever little attacks Japan had were held off by the defence and even Akash Chikte who had replaced Suraj Karkera in goal managed to save with smart deflections.
Once towards the end of the fourth quarter, Chikte saved a sharp chance with the Korean umpire pointing towards a stroke but the video umpire saved the situation explaining that Chikte had not stick-checked the Japanese forward.
If there was a sore point in the match, it was that the forwards missed plenty of chances. Akashdeep had some fine runs but couldn’t connect or simply suffered from a skill fade that saw six chances that came to him go abegging. Similar was the case with Ramandeep and Sunil, who despite scoring one each just couldn’t add to the tally. Time and again, they were in position but either didn’t have the power or simply couldn’t connect properly.
Of the five penalty corners, Harmanpreet squeezed in two and could easily have got in a third to complete a fine hat-trick but the flicks were not powerful enough. It was in fact Manpreet’s ingenuity that enabled Harmanpreet get his second, a dummy sold to the Japanese defence gave the space for Harmanpreet to fire in the flick.
Yet, one got the feeling that as matches roll by, India could raise their game, plan it better and more importantly, control the match in such a way that the opponent finds it difficult to create moves. Like through the middle of the third quarter and towards it end, India didn’t allow Japan to create much, stifling attacks in the midfield area, and then counter-attacking. Marijne would look at this area as India Achilles heel. In a tight encounter, goals must be created and scored.
Marijne assessment was simple that in the fourth quarter, energy was flagging because of the 5-1 lead. “Quality had dropped and we gave Japan possibilities to score and that is something that shouldn’t happen anymore,” he said.
The Indian coach was categorical in saying that there was a little tension at the start of the match. “The rhythm was missing and we lacked organisation but we picked up speed as the match went on,” said Marijne.
Upon being asked whether his own ideology was in play, Marijne’s answer was of a man not risking too much of his thought process at the moment. “We should raise our levels,” he explained. “There should be internal competition and every player has to show he is the best to be in the team.”
The Indian captain Manpreet on being asked if there was any hint of pressure under a new coach said: “Our job is to play, work on the ground. Yes, we are happy with him and we will do our best.”
As for head to head against Japan, statistician BG Joshi points out that India has played Japan 77 times, wining 69, drawing four and losing four. By any standards, it’s an awesome piece of domination, especially against a side that has increased its work load in the last 4-5 years and run teams close. In fact, in the last Azlan Shah tournament, Japan had beaten Australia in a pool match.
It’s early days here at the Asia Cup. Sometimes, a tournament has the tendency to produce a kind of lethargy when teams like India feel their world ranking of six puts them a few feet ahead of the opposition. But winning against lower ranked opponents also strengthens resolve. Pressure, later in the tournament should not in any way crumble resoluteness. Marijne needs to ensure that.
Updated Date: Oct 11, 2017 23:05 PM