FIH Series Finals: India eyes perfect game against Japan in semifinal

Even though India registered some big wins in the preliminary stages against lower-ranked opponents, the host, under new chief coach Graham Reid, is yet to showcase its perfect game on the turf.

Indian hockey team captain Manpreet Singh plays soccer during a training session at Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar.   -  PTI

It was a match that was expected to be played at the very end, but India and Japan will clash in the semifinals of the FIH Hockey Series Finals on Friday.

Both teams have been below-par in their outings so far, even though Japan managed a comprehensive win against Poland in the quarterfinal. That, however, has meant just a day’s rest for the side even as India had three off days. Neither team, though, is looking at the past to plan for the future.

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While a win would be essential for India to advance in its quest for an Olympic spot, the Japanese can breathe easier. Already qualified twice over – as Asian Games champion and host – Japan is under no real pressure. “We came here to win. If we want to do well at the Olympics, we have to beat the top-10 teams, and the only top-10 team in Asia is here,” Japan coach Siegfried Aikman said.

Rankings, though, matter little as has already been proven in the tournament so far. India is expected to start favourite, but needs to up its game in every department to make sure Japan doesn’t spring a surprise, which it very well can.

India’s forward line would be the biggest concern for coach Graham Reid. The team has created enough chances, even though it has messed up a lot more, but not converted them. Despite early attacks, the side has taken time to get into the scoring rhythm and its penalty corner conversions remain an issue, even against a weaker side like Uzbekistan.

The defence and the goalkeepers have had little to do but the one time it was tested – against Poland – they were caught unawares and that would be the biggest challenge on Friday. Japan would be coming on far more strongly than any of the three opponents India has played so far and the defence and goalkeeping, untested so far, would have to stay alert and prepared.

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At the other end, Japan’s scoring too has been wayward but its defence has held up. Aikman admitted that possession was the key and that his team didn't do as well in the group stage, but also insisted that doing well was no guarantee for success and that the team had planned for the game.

Given India’s poor recent record in knockout games – Asian Games semis, World Cup quarterfinals and the Azlan Shah final – Friday’s game would be a test as much for the players as Reid.

The other semifinal would see USA take on South Africa in a repeat of the opening game of the tournament that saw the African champion being upset by table-topper USA. In the morning, Russia and Poland would fight it out for the fifth place.