CHENNAI: India are on a high. Defensively and aggressively, they are implementing most of what they set out to, ahead of the Asian Games. They also have expertly surmounted the high-voltage Pakistan challenge as far as the Asian Champions Trophy is concerned, which means the focus can now be purely on their game.
As table-toppers and the only unbeaten team in the tournament, the hosts can safely be called the title favourites from here on. But up against them in the semifinals is the only side that denied them victory in the round-robin stage.
Japan have had a middling run so far and barely scraped through to the last-four stage, thanks to Pakistan’s inferior goal difference – caused in part by India’s thrashing on Wednesday. But Masaki Ohashi’s men have shown an appetite to fight and punch above their weight by way of gritty, dauntless defending.
The Indians would know that full well, as they witnessed in their pool encounter when the Japanese rushers kept putting their bodies on the line to block
Harmanpreet Singh and Co’s dragflicks. This had led to a series of penalty corner rewards, but the strategy proved mighty successful for Japan as India could only convert one of their 15 short corners.
India coach Craig Fulton though is not unduly worried about that result and considers it an aberration to what he feels has been a consistent campaign from his boys.
“We were just looking at tonight’s (against Pakistan on Wednesday) performance. We had some good consistency in each quarter and I think we did the same in the Japan game as well. I was looking at the stats – we had something like 29 circle entries and in each quarter, we got more than Japan. So it wasn’t one quarter dropped. It’s just about the consistency and we’ve got to find the back of the net at some point,” Fulton said.
In addition to the volume, the mode of Indian goal-scoring has also been an oft-discussed topic. While the home team appeared to be making active efforts to create more field goal opportunities in the matches against Malaysia and Korea, they reverted to PCs as the dominant attacking option against Pakistan.
Fulton believes it does not matter how the goals come, as long as they keep coming. “We plan for field goals as well as PCs. We do not go into the game looking to focus on just one mode. So it will be a nice challenge (against Japan), we are looking forward to it,” he said.
It’s almost like a blank canvas for me with all the players: India hockey coach Craig Fulton
Nevertheless, the spotlight as always will be on red-hot Harmanpreet, who appears to be taking the dual captaincy-drag-flicking responsibility in his stride.
“The penalty corner is my responsibility. I am aware of that. I just try to do my best, be it in training or in matches. Even when I am missing the target, I know I just have to try and try again and I will soon get back to my best,” the India skipper said.
He will look to carry this confidence into Friday evening’s clash to prove that he can find and exploit the gaps in Japan’s PC defence, which almost seemed impregnable in their round-robin meeting.