Having risen like a proverbial phoenix from the ashes, a rejuvenated Indian men’s hockey team would like to put up a much-improved performance when it takes on Japan in its first ‘Super 4’ match of the Asia Cup here on Saturday.
Despite facing a below-par Indonesia in their final group league game, the young side coached by Sardar Singh must be lauded for being able to score a whopping 16 goals in just an hour.
It was one more than what India required to put a final nail in Pakistan’s coffin as far as harbouring World Cup qualification hopes were concerned.
Both India and Pakistan finished on four points each in Pool A behind Japan but the defending champions qualified for the next round due to better goal difference (+1).
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But it was not a smooth sailing for India in the first two matches.
Having already qualified for next year’s World Cup by virtue of being the hosts, India fielded an inexperienced team with as many as 12 debutants for the tournament to gain much-needed experience.
The young boys did not have the best of starts drawing 1-1 with Pakistan before losing 2-5 to Japan, which pushed them on the brink of elimination.
But the Indians were in no mood to bow out without a fight even as they stood at the point of no return. They staged a dramatic turnaround to keep alive their hopes of title defence.
They were also aided by Japan, who beat Pakistan 3-2 in their final match.
Their first goal achieved, the Indians would like to start afresh in the Super 4 stage, where Japan, South Korea and Malaysia are the other three teams. All the teams will play each other with the top two progressing to the final.
Revenge would be high on India’s agenda having lost to the Japanese in the pool stages.
But it would be easier said than done as the nimble-footed Japanese rely mostly on counter attacks to surprise their opponents, a ploy they used to perfection against India in their last outing.
One of the perennial areas of concern for India is poor percentage of penalty corner conversions as this team doesn’t have a designated drag-flicker like Rupinderpal Singh or Amit Rohidas. In fact, even against minnows Indonesia, India failed to convert even half of the 20 plus short corners that they earned.
The Indian defence, led by Lakra, will have to be at its best to stop the speedy Japanese, while the midfield will have to bind the team together to create chances upfront.
Dipsan Tirkey, who scored five goals against Indonesia, has been brilliant with penalty corner conversions but it is an area of concern as India could utilise just nine out of the 22 short corners they earned in their last game.
Young Uttam Singh needs to be more accurate with his finishing inside the opposition circle, but Pawan Rajbhar has the been star for India so far. He not only created chances with his strong runs but also scored goals.
Veteran SV Sunil scored two goals against Indonesia but age seemed to have caught up with him as his trademark electrifying runs down the flanks are missing from his game.
But to get the better of Japan, the Indians will have to produce a more disciplined performance, which was lacking in the first encounter between the two teams.
In other Super 4 stage match, South Korea will take on Malaysia.