Despite a sluggish start, a defence that at times bordered on the reckless and a forward line that slo0wly arose from a deep slumber, India used the opportunities to get past Asian Games champion Japan 2-0 to begin their 2019 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup campaign with a win. For the Blues, it was their first win of the year; a start that many hope winds up with a 2020 Olympic spot. Yet, if this display is any pointer, coaches and analysts need to be worried. India are without some of their stalwarts. But the replacements are no rookies. Getting the team settled took much of three quarters before the sails caught some wind and showed the skill that fans do at times get delirious about.
Japan operated with a tight defence. They had no choice. Except for the last match at the 2018 Asian Champions Trophy in Muscat which ended in a tight 3-2 in India's favour, the ones before that had score lines of 9-0, 8-0, 4-2 and 6-0. Siegfried Aikam, the Japanese coach is a huge fan of Indian skills. At the same time, he is acknowledged as a master tactician. Just luck won't take you all the way to the Asian Games gold.
At times, Japan had six players at the back, all proficient in man-to-man marking. So tight was the marking in the first two quarters that Shilanand Lakra, Sumit Kumar, Gursahibjit Singh and Mandeep Singh couldn't penetrate. If they had the ball, there was no space. Gursahib learnt what hockey is at this level. He feinted, twisted, ran wide, kept the ball back but the Japanese didn't commit. They waited and waited before plucking the ball away. If Japan have learnt to defend, India couldn't showcase their skills, that at times needs to be described with just one word " sublime.
A lot needs to be done in the midfield. Yes, it was the first match of the tournament and the first of the year and no one wants to be harsh. But if trapping, passing, giving turn-overs was of an amateur level, then surely people need to be worried. After all, India is the same team that scored 20 goals in the last five matches. And, Saturday was a struggle.
Territorial supremacy is at times an illusion. After the match, Aikman said, "It's always about using the opportunities. I believe we had the better ones. But India won."
The first quarter did promise much. Vivek Sagar showed enough enterprise to once again raise the question of why he was omitted from the World Cup side. He was on both the flanks, sprinting around like a hare injected with rocket fuel. His performance fell in the second but he came back into the match in the third and fourth quarter. Nilakanta Sharma had the ball and the space but couldn't do much. In fact, in the third quarter, India behaved like a charitable organisation giving away turnovers. A better-organised team would have punished India. Japan couldn't utilise space so intent were they on defence. Just two penalty corners for India shows Japan's over-reliance on packing the back-line.
Maybe, things could have been different if Aikman's boys had played full press, moving in from the flanks. But the mind is a strange creature. Psychologically, India weighed Japan down. Fluency is curtailed simply because the midfield refused to move up front in case an Indian counter-attack caught them napping. Creating a defensive wall seemed to be the only answer for Japan. Patience probably was then a good tactic for India. They didn't press too hard and neither did they go lax. In the Indian defence, Surender Kumar again stood out. Varun Kumar, apart from scoring the opening goal, also saved the second Japanese penalty corner on the line. Lakra seemed jittery, giving away the ball quite a few times while Gurinder seemed wayward as level. Sreejesh made a couple of good saves. Kazumo Murata had a stinging reverse hit stopped by Sreejesh. An early Japanese strike might have put India under pressure. India played both Sreejesh and Krishan Pathak, in alternate quarters.
In the third and fourth quarter, Japan needed a strike to try and put pressure on India. Genki Mitani had some wonderful runs putting the Indian midfield and defence under some serious pressure. On the breaks, Mandeep missed a reverse hit while Sumit Kumar mostly ran away from the Japanese goal. It wasn't as if Shilanand, Sumit or Gursahibjit suddenly lost their skill. They seemed lost, out of position and totally at sea to be able to understand what the midfield was trying to create. A coach's voice needs to be in their ears.
The match came alive in the fourth quarter with quality strikes, pace, fast-paced flank play and some fast, decisive defensive work. Sumit Kumar found himself in the middle of the circle and did try with a deft reverse deflection but the Japanese goalkeeper saved. Shilanand found space but kept going till he lost the ball. In all this Sumit Kumar also found time to get a green card.
In the 55th minute came the move that makes this sport such delightful viewing. Japan made the mistake of giving Vivek space on the left flank and the diminutive midfielder overlapped and sprinted away. It was a move of pure, simple, two touches, the kind you would find in a hockey skill manual. Just when one thought that Vivek had over-played the ball, he pulled out a reverse hit, inches away from the touchline that found the stick of Simranjeet Singh, the deflection rising high into the net. At 2-0, the Japanese knew the match was gone. In the dying minutes, Japan had their 2nd penalty corner. Varun saved on the line thus effectively giving himself the man-of-the-match award.
Indian captain Manpreet agreed it was a slow start. "But we had more of the ball and should have got more goals. We wanted a winning start and we got one. Once we are back at the hotel, we will have a meeting and understand where we need to improve and be ready for tomorrow's match against South Korea."
Aikman, the Japanese coach eventually agreed that the team that scores goals wins the match. "That is the essence of sport. There are no points given for creating better opportunities. But we are getting closer to India. That day is not far when we will beat them."
Korea will not be easy opponents especially after their 6-3 thrashing of Canada. Six goals in the first three quarters showed signs of an extremely fit Korean side. India look sub-par. They need to raise their game, level of subtlety, show more threat up front, create combinations and reveal an all-round game plan that wasn't visible against Japan. 2018 at times was an exercise in inconsistency. It is time India started to change things.