On the eve of the semi-final against hosts India, Japan chief coach Siegfried Aikman was asked what surprise had he planned for India. “They already know they will win. So there are not many surprises,” Aikman, himself of Indian origin as his grandparents migrated to Suriname early last century from where he moved to the Netherlands when he was 12, had said.
But his team did surprise India on Friday when Kenji Kitazato scored a field goal off a swift counter attack in the second minute of the FIH Series Finals semis here.
But the surprise was short-lived as India used their better skills and greater experience to establish ascendancy soon and thrashed the Asian Games gold medallists 7-2 to clinch their appointed place in the final and thus claiming a berth in the Olympic qualification tournament to be held in October-November. In the final, India will meet South Africa, the second highest ranked team here at No 16, who edged past USA 2-1 in the other semi-final.
After Japan left them stunned momentarily with the early goal, India created a number of chances. Nilakanta Sharma was thwarted by Japan goalkeeper Yusuke Takano in the fifth minute, young Hardik Singh failed to tap in a pass by Gursahibjit Singh, while Akashdeep Singh too failed to capitalise on an opportunity.
But India, clearly the better team but having a tendency of losing focus during crunch games, could not be denied for long as they enforced two penalty corners in succession and of the second, Harmanpreet Singh, playing his 100th international, flicked a powerful shot to the right of ‘keeper Takano to level the score 1-1.
India could have taken the lead immediately after that but Akashdeep and Gursahibjit failed to deflect into the goal a pass, from across the goalmouth, by skipper Manpreet Singh.
India forced three penalty corners in succession and the last one (India’s fifth in all), Varun Kumar planted a powerful yet low flick to the right of the Japanese goalkeeper.
Japan were not done yet as they levelled at 2-2 with Kota Watanabe capitalising on a swift counter attack to tap in a pass by Kazuma Kurata.
Stunned again by the Japan forwards, India regrouped and dominated proceedings, scoring twice in two minutes through Ramandeep Singh and Hardik Singh, both field goals coming off well-executed attacks initiated from the back to make it 4-2 five minutes before half-time.
Their superiority established, India struck two more in the third quarter with Ramandeep getting his name again on the scoresheet (37th minute) and Gursahibjit giving finishing touch to a well-orchestrated attack.
The match in their pocket with 6-2 lead, India took the foot off the pedal and enjoyed some quiet time in the fourth quarter, scoring their seventh goal via Vivek Sagar Prasad, off a pass by Manpreet, in the 47th minute and absorbed some pressure created by Japan to seal victory.