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Wasteful India draw 1-1 against Japan | Hockey

It was never going to be a walk in the park like Thursday night when the Indian men’s hockey team hammered China 7-2. The reigning Asian Games champions, Japan are no pushovers, rather an adversary that will fight tooth and nail for every ball.

Japan are known to surprise top teams in the world every once in a while.(PTI)
Japan are known to surprise top teams in the world every once in a while.(PTI)

Ranked 19th in the world, Japan may not have excelled regularly since winning the gold at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, but they are known to surprise top teams in the world every once in a while.

Friday was one of those days. Going into the match as favourites, the home team were expected to win their second contest of the Asian Champions Trophy at the Mayor Radhakrishnan Stadium in Chennai, but Harmanpreet Singh and Co. were held to a 1-1 draw by Japan, who came back strongly after losing their opener 1-2 to South Korea.

While India had won the previous three matches against Japan, the world No.19 outfit defeated a second-string Indian team at the 2022 Asia Cup in Jakarta. But significantly, they had also stunned India in the semi-finals of the 2021 Asian Champions Trophy in Dhaka, when they beat a full-strength India, who had just won the historic bronze at the Tokyo Olympics.

On Friday, India needed to guard against complacency that resulted in two goals for China in the opener. Despite the margin of victory, the lapses certainly didn’t impress India chief coach Craig Fulton.

While India clearly dominated play with 61 percent of possession, 27 circle penetrations to Japan’s 11, 21 shots on goal to Japan’s three, the bottom line was the hosts proved wasteful throughout the 60-minute encounter. To make it worse, the world No.4 side converted only one of their 14 penalty corner (PC) chances while Japan made use of their short corners better, converting one of their only two chances.

Japan’s midfield and backline built a wall that India wasn’t able to breach on most counts. The Olympic bronze medallists countered by playing aerial balls to enter the Japanese circle.

Japan tried to slow the pace of the game from the start, playing at their own tempo. At the start India used the flanks well to create circle entries but defenders Raiki Fujishima and Yamato Kawahara built a human wall, especially during PCs – Japan saved eight in only the first quarter, halting the likes of Harmanpreet, Jugraj Singh, Varun Kumar each time.

India’s PCs completely dried up in the second quarter and the field goal chances ended in scrappy melees with India failing to convert. Japan kept gaining confidence as the match went on, matching India’s pace, yard for yard, eager to make a comeback from Thursday’s loss.

After soaking all the pressure from India for almost the entire first half, Japan’s patient buildup finally paid dividends when Player-of-the-Match Ken Nagayoshi (28th) scored a beautiful drag-flick goal in Japan’s second and final PC opportunity. Nagayoshi evaded first-rusher Amit Rohidas and pushed the ball past Krishan Bahadur Pathak’s left.

India hogged possession early in the third quarter which resulted in a couple of PCs. All the press finally resulted in a goal. After Varun and Jugraj failed to convert the previous short corner attempts, premier marksman Harmanpreet (43′) finally sent it through the legs of Japanese goalkeeper Takashi Yoshikawa’s legs to convert India’s 10th PC opportunity.

Unable to beat the Japanese midfield conventionally, India started playing more aerial balls to reach the striking circle. The Olympic bronze medallists earned four PCs in the final quarter but all were saved by the Japanese backline.

India goalkeeper PR Sreejesh also got into the act towards the end when he made a brilliant save using his left foot to thwart a close Japanese attempt. The hosts had a few more chances at the end but an incredible Japanese defence kept the scores level at the final hooter.

India will next play Malaysia on Sunday.

Earlier in the day, defending champions South Korea drew 1-1 against Pakistan. Abdul Shahid (18th) gave the three-time champions a 1-0 lead but Jihun Yang drew level in the 53rd minute. Malaysia on the other hand hammered China 5-1 with Firhan Ashari (45th, 49th) scoring a brace and Faizal Saari (11th), Abu Kamal Azrai (15th) and Najmi Jazlan (57th) sounded the board once each. Chongcong Chen (4th) of China scored the first goal of the match.

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