FIH Men’s Series Finals: Much-improved Japan in India’s path to the final

The Japan team along with coach Siegfried Aikman on Thursday visited the Dhauli Giri Shanti Stupa, a hill shrine on the banks of Divya River on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar where Emperor Ashoka embraced Buddhism following the Kalinga war.

Aikman will hope the visit to the shrine will inspire his side to victory in Friday’s clash against India.

Numbers favour India. In 83 games against Japan so far, India have won 75 with Japan winning four and four ending in stalemates. India’s last defeat to Japan was in the Asian Champions Trophy in 2013—a 2-1 win at Kakamigahara, Japan.

India are ranked fifth in the world while Japan are 18th, so when they meet in the semi-finals of the FIH Men’s Series Finals on Friday, the hosts will be overwhelming favourites to advance to the summit clash and clinch a spot in the Tokyo Olympics qualification tournament.

But Japan cannot be taken lightly. The Asian Games gold medallists are one of the most improved sides in recent times and the hosts are known to stumble in crunch situations, a fact that will give Aikman hope ahead of the key encounter.

India’s failure to reach the final here will not end their hopes of clinching a Tokyo berth as they can still qualify for the 14-team Olympic qualification tournament on the basis of rankings. However, missing the bus at Bhubaneswar will lead to a loss of face for Indian hockey and could result in a few heads rolling.

Even before the start of the tournament, the Indians knew their real test will come in semi-finals whoever be their opponent. Japan were expected to reach the final going by their recent performance and they were supposed to meet either USA or South Africa in the last-four stage.

However, the Americans finished ahead of Japan on the basis of better goal difference as Japan paid the price for not scoring enough goals against Mexico (3-1) in their opening game. USA slammed nine goals past their neighbours and thus enjoyed a big advantage.

In contrast, India had it easy in Pool A despite struggling a bit against Poland before winning 3-1 in the second match. They were not challenged much in that match; it’s just that they failed to execute their tactics properly.

“We didn’t start well enough (vs Poland). I think one of the things we keep talking about is the guys getting distracted from their task and we have to find a way to stay focused,” Reid had said after the match.

Though India thrashed Uzbekistan 10-0 after that, they will have to come up with a consistent performance, maintain focus and not allow Japan many chances. In the three matches so far, India have scored 23 goals with Akashdeep Singh contributing five. The other forwards, Mandeep Singh and Simranjeet Singh, too have scored goals and created penalty corners—26 in all of which drag flickers, Harmanpreet Singh, Amit Rohidas and Varun Kumar, have eight goals.

If India have to win on Friday, their forwards and drag flickers will have to be on their toes.

First Published:
Jun 13, 2019 21:10 IST

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