India's road to redemption for the 'sins of Jakarta' continued as they mauled Asian Games champions Japan 9-0 at the Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex in Muscat. In their last meeting at the Asian Games in Jakarta, India had whipped Japan 8-0 before imploding against Malaysia in the semi-finals. At the Champions Trophy on Sunday, Japan gave India their third consecutive win in as many matches. Even though the Japanese had brought in a few young players, India's domination through the four quarters gave hardly any room to the opposition to experiment with a different structure or even try and keep the scoreline down. Lalit Upadhyay, Harmanpreet Singh and Mandeep Singh scored a brace each with Gurjant Singh, Kothajit and Akashdeep Singh rounding off the tally.
In their last ten matches against Japan, India are yet to lose a game. The closest Japan have run India has been the 3-4 scoreline at the 2017 Azlan Shah where the Japanese had the lead before a hat-trick by Mandeep gave India a 4-3 victory and the closest after that was a 2-1 win in a Test match. India's biggest win in the last ten games was the 10-2 margin at the Asian Champions Trophy in Kuantan when they won the title.
With the Champions Trophy a lead-up to the World Cup in just over a month, victories are the foundation on which India aim to build a campaign for the Bhubaneswar World Cup. That style, aggression, and intent were visible against the Japanese, even though the opposition, despite their being the Asian Games Champions, wasn't the quality that Indian coach Harendra Singh would be too impressed with. Yet, for him, it's always getting the goals that set the pace and rhythm. The midfield was a little more open than what they were against Pakistan who had the ball players to exploit gaps in the Indian midriff.
Japan were largely beaten on pace, skill, and subterfuge. Coach Siegfried Aikman was honest enough in his assessment that playing against India required every skill to stand out. "But give them space and they will finish you off," he said. India rattled Japan early on by breaking through early with Mandeep's strong run and perfect hit just missing out on Lalit's stick. But not for long as Akashdeep, the man-of-the-match, stretched the Japanese before his cross was deflected in superbly by Lalit for India to lead 1-0. It was difficult for Japan from this stage on and not because India had the early goal. The Indians played almost three steps up, pushing Japan constantly on the back-foot. The Asian Games champions did try and create openings around their right flank but India constantly created turn-overs with three players cutting off the passes. India's second goal came in the 8th minute off their first penalty corner and Gurjant was in the perfect spot to pick up the Harmanpreet Singh flick that rebounded off the Japanese goalkeeper Yoshikawa Takashi.
Japan's coach Aikman knew what was in store. The Dutchman brought in players, created a six-man defensive unit and ensured India didn't have further success in the first Quarter. Akashdeep, Mandeep and Dilpreet had their chances but the ball refused to cross the goal-line.
Meanwhile, Akashdeep found his rhythm. He moved in from either flank, creating havoc outside and inside the striking circle. Akashdeep created so much space that even with 7-8 defenders, Japan found it tough to tackle and mark the Indians. In one particular move, Akashdeep moved from the right flank onto the left and then cut in before seeing his flick go past the post. Yet, India kept individual play to the minimum, moving in fast using speed and dodge rather than the dribble.
India got the third goal off a stroke that led in from a penalty corner with the rebound hammered in by Manpreet Singh which seemed to go off the defender's head-guard. The stroke was converted by Harmanpreet Singh. And then in the 21st minute, Harman got his second goal of the match with a perfectly timed flick. India led 4-0 at the break. Even though possession was marginally in favour of India, they had 11 shots at the Japanese goal and 18 circle entries to Japan's six, most of which came at the end of the second Quarter.
The third quarter was mixed for India. In terms of goals, it was their most rewarding with three but they also had a yellow card shown to Dilpreet who had to sit out for ten minutes. It's a warning for the player and the management to make them understand that shoulder shoves and barging result in cards. India though had enough quality to ensure they didn't suffer from just ten men on the pitch.
India had their 5th goal off Akashdeep who waded into a melee, prised out the ball and flicked it in. And then Hardik Singh created one for Akashdeep who gave it to Kothajit to slam in for goal No 6. Surender, meanwhile, itching to move up, finally got his moment with a lovely cross which found the edge of Lalit's outstretched stick. India's possession had increased to 63 percent and they already had 24 circle entries with 17 shots at goal. Japan had two shots at goal.
Dilpreet was back in the 4th quarter. India had their 5th penalty corner as Harmanpreet sold a dummy with a deft parallel pass to Varun whose flick was low and the rebound off the goalkeeper was hammered in by Mandeep. India led 8-0. It was here that Japan had two PCs and they lost the opportunity to at least get a consolation goal. Sumit, trying to forge a few moves through a crowded Japanese defence, did find a goal but was over-ruled by the video umpire for dangerous play. In the 57th minute, Jarmanpreet created a move from the flank where his cross found Indian captain Manpreet and the powerful hit was deflected in by Mandeep. Nine points from three matches before that big game against Malaysia would ensure India slept well.
India have scored 23 goals and conceded one. But what would make Harendra positive is that between Mandeep and Dilpreet, the duo have nine goals which augurs well when it comes to strikers being in form. More than the goals, it is their positional strength that is finally getting them the shots at goal. Penalty corners are still the main area of worry. Nothing looks better than a well-executed, drilled in penalty corner. Harmanpreet did have a brace against Japan, a stroke and a PC but the fluency is slightly awry. And neither has Varun really owned the flick. It could be tactical but with a man like Chris Ciriello in that position, India should look forward to a better PC drill.
For Harendra, victories are tonic, more like spreadsheets over which he endlessly pores trying to understand the dynamics of the match. It wouldn't be too far-fetched to think that in the consistency and simplicity that he strives for, improving the last-ball finesse of the Indian forwards will be another priority area for him.