Sultan Azlan Shah Cup 2017: Mandeep Singh came of age against Japan with hat-trick

For long, talent was his only calling card. But at the Azlan Shah Stadium in Ipoh, just when Japan threatened to run away with the match, Mandeep Singh rose from being just ‘raw talent’ to becoming ‘The Poacher’. With a brilliant hat-trick, he gave a new lease of life to India’s campaign of entering the Sultan Azlan Shah Hockey Tournament final just when it was in the danger of being derailed. India beat the world’s 16th ranked team 4-3 after being in arrears twice in the match.

During the course of the game, Japan not only shocked India by taking the lead twice but also showed counter-attacking abilities that had the normally structured Indian defence behaving like a herd of deer caught in the middle of an expressway.

India's Mandeep Singh (left) celebrates after scoring. IMage courtesy: Hockey India

India's Mandeep Singh (left) celebrates after scoring. IMage courtesy: Hockey India

Mandeep rose like a phoenix. Never has the Jalandhar lad’s talent been in doubt; but the abilities to deliver were unproven. Even though skeptics would say the opponent were Japan, the pressure was akin to any world class game where a team not in the world’s top 15 was about to humiliate a side ranked 6th.

It’s at that moment when rankings go out of the window. Players are left looking at the clock and the insurmountable odds in front. In these moments, athletes take giant steps towards stardom. In Ipoh, it was Mandeep’s afternoon where even the Japanese probably would have bowed their head in respect to a player who rose from being just another striker to being the striker.

Indian coach Roelant Oltmans, for long a fan of Mandeep and a believer that the boy who had played the 2014 World Cup and was a part of the silver medal winning Champions Trophy team would eventually deliver, said, “He is getting better and better, (and is) still very young. He just turned 22 in January. First of all, he is super fit. You can see not only in his attacking actions but also the way he is putting pressure on opponents. He is working on regaining possession, which is an important part of our defensive structure, and he is leading in that as well.” Mandeep, the boy, was also a part of the 2016 Junior World Cup winning team.

Nothing much was expected from the India-Japan game other than a quiet straightforward victory. In the 2016 Asian Champions Trophy in Kuantan, India had beaten Japan 10-2. That was a match played on a day where nothing went wrong for India. Rupinder Pal Singh scored a double hat-trick flicking in six goals. By the time, Japan got their head around the score sheet, six goals had been flicked in and it was downhill after that. But, on Wednesday, when Rupinder scored in the 6th minute, the powerful flick rising into the top of the net, one thought normal service had resumed.

Yet, Japan didn’t keel over. They fought back. Indian forwards, used to space because of their movements and skills, suddenly found themselves marked out of the game. They couldn’t move. Either way, Japanese defenders stuck to them like limpets. SV Sunil, who is having an extremely average tournament couldn’t create moves and neither could take shots at goal. Akashdeep had an outing he would rather forget. And when Mandeep initially couldn’t find the target, it seemed only penalty corners would save India the blushes.

Japan played on the flanks stretching the Indian defence. Their counter-attacks were well thought. Not wild runs in the direction of the Indian goal. They attacked with two forwards, not leaving their territory exposed. The equaliser came in the 10th minute after Masaki Ohashi went past two Indian defenders with ease, tapping it through for Kazuma Murata to deflect past the Indian goalkeeper Akash Chikte, was is now the first team goalkeeper after PR Sreejesh had been ruled out of the tournament with a knee injury. Japan was quick to realise that the Indian defence was jittery. The Asian champions, however, wouldn’t have been too perturbed at this stage.

But Japan had prepared well. Kota Watanabe sprinted on the right flank and send an inch perfect cross to an overlapping Koji Yamasaki who missed trapping the ball, his run slightly slower than the pace of the ball. Importantly, the Indian defence had been sliced open. It was at that point India should have regrouped and smelled the danger this Japanese team was about to pose. But they were languid; too comfortable in the thought and duration of a four-quarter match that eventually would bend down in submission.

On the contrary, Japan scored and took the lead 2-1 in the 43rd minute. Heita Yoshihara had the ball on the halfway mark. And he ran and kept running diagonally. Gurinder kept running as if giving him company. Once inside the Indian striking circle, Heita realised he had to take a shot and he did. Akash Chikte was late off the mark and the ball whizzed past his pads into the corner. India looked shell-shocked. Two minutes later, India had the equaliser when Mandeep deflected in a lovely move from Harmanpreet Singh.

But Japan seized the lead in the 45th minute itself when Koyo Kameyama dribbled into the Indian striking circle, gave it to Murata whose shot was deflected into the middle of the circle by Surender and then Sardar Singh; the loose ball falling for Genki Mitani who scored with a direct hit. Japan led 3-2 and India suddenly went into panic mode. It was at this stage that they started playing hockey with a focus on winning the match.

Finally realising that the Japanese were over-crowding the striking circle, they played passes on top of the striking circle and shot in diagonally. The equaliser came in the 51st minute when Talwinder Singh played the ball on the line and tapped it through. The Japanese goalkeeper Shimmoto, Shota Yamada and Kameyama were all beaten. Mandeep only had to knock it in. At 3-3, Japan for the first time yielded space at the back as India drove the team forward. It was here that Harmanpreet missed a penalty corner, India’s 6th as Oltmans on the bench hammered his fists on the advertisement boards in frustration.

With two minutes left on the clock, mistakes were now being committed by Japan. Rupinder moving on the right flank sent a throughball seeing Mandeep in the middle of the Japanese striking circle. The Indian striker looking for his third goal of the match trapped the ball with his back to the Japanese goal. He swiveled almost 180 degrees to his right and with a brutal reverse hit beat Shimmoto in the Japanese goal. India led 4-3 as normalcy returned to the Indian dug-out.

Lower ranked teams do give a scare but Japan displayed a rare combination of dynamism, mobility and spark. They play a style that is very demanding and can leave them exposed. But India didn’t push the initiative and when a midfield is in two minds, the opposition can get a lot of courage.

Speaking on Mandeep, Oltmans, said, “That is something special, that you are capable of scoring so many goals and at the same time he is more or less the first defender when the opponent has got possession. Wait until he is 24 or 25, probably by the Olympics, and he will be of even higher quality.”

Mandeep has the balance of a striker and for almost two-three years has been in and out of the team. Oltmans did admit that Mandeep has started working very hard on his fitness and attitude. “He is a crazy sort of guy,” said Oltmans. “Out of nothing he created those goals.”

Looking at the stats of the match, India had 14 shots at goal to seven by Japan. Even the circle entries stood at 32 for India to 14 for Japan and India enjoyed 73 percent of the possession to 27 percent by Japan. To be able to play at a consistent level, players have to be ruthless. India was soft against Japan with the exception of Mandeep.

After Wednesday’s matches, Australia topped the table with 10 points from four matches; India is second with seven points and Great Britain third with seven points. India is ahead at this stage with a better goal average. On Thursday, India play hosts Malaysia while Great Britain takes on New Zealand.

Japan was a wake-up call. Against hosts Malaysia on Friday, with a place in the final at stake, the others in the team might decide to do a follow up act as a mark of appreciation for Mandeep.

Updated Date: May 04, 2017 11:02 AM

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