FIH Series Finals: India defeats Japan 7-2 in semis; seals Olympic Qualifiers spot

Goals from Ramandeep Singh, Harmanpreet Singh, Varun Kumar and others ensured India progressed to the final, where it will be up against South Africa. With this win, India has qualified for the Olympic Qualifiers later in the year irrespective of the result in the final.

Ramandeep Singh struck twice in India's 7-2 win.   -  Twitter/@TheHockeyIndia

The Indian team that everyone wanted to see finally stepped up, partially, in the semifinal of the Hockey Series Finals here against Japan on Friday, storming to a 7-2 victory and setting up a final clash against South Africa.

Despite the scoreline, it was not a 100 percent performance from the host, which says something about the actual level of this team. When in flow, the Indians can be a delight to watch, and they showed glimpses of it in the second half. The margin could have been bigger if the forwards, specially Mandeep Singh, had managed to avoid a bit of show-boating and got their positioning correct early on. Credit, though, must also go to Japan goalkeeper Takashi Yoshikawa, who brought off some impressive saves.

Despite the difference in rankings, it wasn’t expected to be an easy outing for India and it wasn’t made any easier when Kenji Kitazato slammed in the opening goal in the second minute itself. It took the Indians by surprise and saw them hit back with desperation, getting an equaliser five minutes later through Harmanpreet Singh’s penalty corner.

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For the first 20 minutes, it was an even battle. While Japan tried to stretch India wide, the Indians themselves kept bunching up into tight corners. It looked like a battle of desperation and ended in a stalemate before Ramandeep Singh tapped in in the 23rd minute and Hardik Singh, unmarked at the top of the circle, got in a rebound two minutes later to make it 4-2 despite Yoshikawa bringing about three consecutive saves.

The second half was completely different. The lethargy was replaced by aggression and it looked like the players had been given a free hand to simply go out and run riot. They did. The team spread out, the flanks became important in creating openings, the holding time reduced and suddenly, the Indians were all over the Japanese half. The team kept trying to earn penalty corners – they got 10 in all – while also putting pressure on the Japanese defence through short passes inside their circle.

It worked. India got its fifth in the 37th minute, Ramandeep Singh slotting home a rebound from India’s eighth PC. Japan dismantled, the discipline they are known for vanished and despite a few counter attacks, there was no come back for the Asian Games champion.

South Africa beats USA in comeback victory

In the other semifinal, South Africa completed its spectacular recovery in the tournament by entering the final with a 2-1 win against USA. After a disastrous start to the competition, SA edged past a fighting USA to ensure a spot in the Olympic qualifiers. USA would now take on Japan for the third spot.

Despite South Africa dominating the early exchanges, it was USA who took the lead in the 15th minute through a penalty corner conversion by Aki Kaeppeler. Stunned by the goal, the Africans pressed hand in the second quarter but failed to utilise the chances and USA went into the breather leading by a solitary goal.

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South Africa kept up the pressure in the third quarter and eqaulised when Austin Smith converted a penalty corner in the 42nd minute.

From there on, both the teams tried hard to score the all-important winner but just when it looked the tournament would witness its first shoot-out, South Africa capitalise on USA’s defensive lapse and struck just at the stroke of the final hooter through Nicholas Spooner to march into Saturday’s final.

The win came as a sweet revenge for the Africans who were beaten 2-0 by the USA in the pool stages of the tournament.

5-6 place: Russia 3 (Marat Khairullin, Pavel Golubev, Sergey Lepeshkin) bt Poland 2 (Mikolaj Gumny, Michal Kaspryzk); semifinals: India 7 (Ramandeep Singh 2, Gursahibjit Singh, Vivek Prasad, Varun Kumar, Harmanpreet Singh, Hardik Singh) bt Japan 2 (Kenji Kitazato, Kota Watanabe); South Africa 2 (Austin Smith, Nicholas Spooner) bt USA 1 (Aki Kaeppeler).