Brimming with confidence and showing immaculate control, India demolished Poland 10-0 to finish the league stage of the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup undefeated with 13 points. Twenty-four goals have been scored on the road to the final with only six conceded. Mandeep Singh and Varun Kumar, who led the rout against Poland, sit on the top of the goalscorers list with seven and five goals each. It's a fine balance achieved between a full-back, penalty corner flicker and an all-out striker.
The scorers for India were Vivek Sagar (1st), Sumit Kumar (7th), Varun Kumar (18th), Surender Kumar (19th), Varun Kumar (25th), Simranjeet Singh (29th), Nilakanta Sharma (36th), Mandeep Singh (50th), Mandeep Singh (51st) and Amit Rohidas (55th).
Having played the first match on Friday, India now have approximately 24 hours to get ready for the all-important final. Probably in preparation for that, India didn't bring on their captain Manpreet Singh. The armband went to a thoroughly deserving Surender Kumar, the vice-captain of the team. He, in turn, celebrated with a goal; a fine direct hit off a penalty corner that invoked some nostalgia of a by-gone era when players like Pargat Singh Dilip Tirkey hammered in those direct shots.
The last time an Indian player scored off a direct hit against Poland was probably also Dilip Tirkey at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, a moment that even now open up wounds in that team of 2000. India needed a win against Poland to enter the 2000 Sydney Games semi-final and led 1-0 till almost the last minute. But then a defensive error and Poland equalised. The team that India play tomorrow in the final, South Korea, came in through the back door to enter the semis. History says they beat Pakistan and went through to their first and only Olympic final.
None of that drama happened at the Azlan Shah Stadium. Poland coach Karol Sniezek knew he had his work cut out. He later explained the limitations of his team to stop an opponent that hardly committed a mistake. "We can't handle India's speed and control," he said when explaining the defeat. It also has to be understood that Poland are ranked 21st while India are 5th.
India could have slowed the game down, which they did. They played half-cock in midfield but their fluency and the space provided by Poland ensured that the goals kept coming. It also helped that the opening goal came in the first minute when Sumit found Vivek Sagar who hammered the ball past the Polish goalkeeper. Poland was rattled as Hardik, Kothajit, Nilakanta, Vivek, Simranjeet and Sumit Kumar rotated the ball efficiently. Errors were minimised and turn-overs were less. The flow was excellent as India repeatedly entered the Polish striking circle.
In the first quarter, only two goals were scored. It was in the second quarter that India knocked in four " Varun getting two of penalty corners, Surinder knocking in a direct penalty corner and Simranjeet tapping the ball in off a goalmouth melee. At the break, it was 6-0.
Nilakanta Sharma scored the only goal in the third quarter off a soft shot. In the fourth quarter, Mandeep Singh powered in two and 10th goal came off an Amit Rohidas flick. India had taken off Sreejesh with a few minutes to go in the fourth quarter.
It's always difficult when there is nothing at stake with the team thinking 'we are playing the final.' It's here that discipline and grit shine through. One did feel that India could have rotated more and ran less than required. Indian manager and analytical coach Chris Ciriello disagreed on the 'go-slow' theory. "We didn't want to change too much. Lot of times you see teams try and save themselves. But we had a plan and we wanted to execute that. (You should) never play with your form."
Indian captain Manpreet Singh was excited about playing 2019's first final. "The team is very excited. We really want to win here. For that, we have to execute the plan. You can't give Korea opportunities, especially conceding penalty corners."
A contrast of Korea and India's matches against Poland gives an interesting view. Even though when you play a final, it's usually about plan, tactics and strategy that is clock-worked for each quarter. Against Poland, Korea really struggled in the midfield. Poland led 2-1 in the 50th minute. By comparison, India led 8-0 in the 50th minute. Korea equalised in the 56th and scored the match-winner with 30 odd seconds to go.
Though, that's not how the Indian team will approach Saturday's final. "We are confident," said Manpreet. "We will play with a lot of energy, as we have shown through the tournament. The defensive structures are good, the strikers are getting the goal. I am very positive about the final."
India did try and get Gursahibjit Singh onto the scoreboards by giving him more time on the pitch. The youngster still has to get his first goal in his first senior outing. "We wanted him to score," said Ciriello. "Same for Shilanand Lakra. He is getting into the right positions and also did his best to create. It's just a shame he couldn't score off the chances he got."
Unless there are early breakthroughs in the final, defensive structures will remain in place. Korea have an experienced bunch of players who have played almost 2000 matches. India, in comparison, are just short of 1500. But the startling difference between the sides is of youth where nine Indian players have played less than 50 games. Korea has nine players with more than 100 caps. India have three players above 100. In the 200 caps department, Korea have three players while India have Sreejesh and Manpreet. Kothajit will notch up his 196th cap in the final.
It's the youth that is expected to shine in the final " Hardik Singh, Simranjeet Singh, Shilanand Lakra, Sumit, Sumit Kumar and Vivek Prasad. India will rely on pace, skill and the smoothness they have displayed in switching positions or spreading out on the flanks and so effortlessly pushing the ball upfront. A good sign is Birendra Lakra coming back into form, moving up and down like a yo-yo. Mandeep Singh's seven goals including a hat-trick puts him down as a real threat against Korea. But it isn't his goals that have stood out. It's been his hard work in the striking circle in the last three matches that have created penalty corners and made space for the others to come in.
Manpreet is right when he says they have to stop Korea from creating chances. Korea know they have ageing legs and they would wait for the counters " a kind of knock-out punch. Korea have seven players over the age of 30. India have only Sreejesh who is 30 years old. Twelve Indian players are below 25. The Indian coaches would red-line players like Jang Jong-hyun, a solid defender with a mean penalty corner flick; Lee Seung-hoon, a player with excellent man-to-man marking skills; Jung Man-jae who can effortlessly create on the flank and also the man who got in two goals that won Korea the game against Poland; Lee Nam-yong, the Korean skipper can be extremely slippery upfront. He is extremely dangerous in the circle and has a deft touch when it comes to placing the ball through a melee of legs. Lee Jung-jun, the left half, can change momentum and position in the flash of a second.
Chris calls the Korean side experienced and smart. "They will create chances and we have to deny them. The match is at 8 pm and the weather should be perfect. In the end, we as a team have to take our opportunities."
Opportunities will be plenty. The Indians play high press with a lot of focus on rhythm, momentum and flow. The Sultan Azlan Shah Cup may not be the ultimate test but for a young team, a win in the final would be the first sunray out of the gloom of the year gone by.