Bhubaneswar: Despite being unbeaten so far in the FIH Series Finals so far, consistency has been the major concern for hosts, the Indian men’s hockey team. Head coach Graham Reid would like to bring back this aspect into the game, when India face Japan in the semifinals Friday here at the Kalinga Stadium.
India have a perfect win record against Japan in the last one year having faced each other three times – Asian Champions Trophy, Asian Games (both in 2018) and Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in 2019. They would like to make it four wins on the trot with home fans rooting for them.
With Japan already sealing their spot at the Tokyo Olympics as hosts and as 2018 Asian Games gold medallist, it is the most crucial encounter for the Indians. A top-two finish in the event would ensure them a place in the Olympic qualifiers to be played here in November. And to do that, they must beat Japan and seal their spot in the title round game.
India have registered wins against lower-ranked opponents under Reid. However, the Men in Blue are yet to showcase their true potential when playing the top-ranked teams. In their recent tour Down Under, the Indians raked up two wins and a draw against the Australia ‘A’ sides but they were humiliated by national side.
Similarly, in this competition too, India won by huge margins against Russia (10-0), Poland (4-0) and Uzbekistan (10-0), but it remains to be seen how they cope up against an attacking Japanese side Friday.
Performance-wise, the Manpreet Singh-led side have been far from impressive. While the midfield has done well under Manpreet, it is the finishing which is a cause for concern. In all the three matches, the Indians have created innumerable scoring chances, but have lacked finishing touch.
Barring Akashdeep Singh, no other forward has looked threatening. While Mandeep Singh and young Gursahibjit Singh played well in patches, Ramandeep Singh, who returned to the side after nearly a one-year injury lay-off, has looked a pale shadow of his past self.
The defence has been hardly tested during the group stages and goalkeepers PR Sreejesh and Krishan Bahadur Pathak have been reduced to mere spectators, but things would be different against the Blue Samurais.
On the other hand, Japan head coach Siegfried Aikman had repeatedly said that they are yet to give their best in the tournament so far. He certainly would like to prove a point against India.
Japan’s journey hasn’t been a roller-coaster ride in this event. They scraped past lower-ranked Mexico (3-1) and South Africa (2-1) before managing a 2-2 draw against eventual table-toppers USA. However, their biggest win came in a 6-2 thrashing of Poland in the cross-overs and it would certainly have given a huge boost to their confidence.