A rejuvenated Indian men’s ice hockey team, which has risen like a proverbial phoenix from the ashes, is looking to put in a much-improved performance when they take on Japan in their first ‘Super 4’ match of the Asian Cup here on Saturday.
Despite meeting an underperforming Indonesia in their last game in the group league, coach Sardar Singh must applaud the young side for scoring a whopping 16 goals in just an hour.
It was one more thing than India needed to put one final nail in Pakistan’s coffin for World Cup qualifying hopes.
Both India and Pakistan finished four points behind Japan in Group A, but the defending champions qualified for the next round on goal difference (+1).
But things didn’t go well for India in the first two games.
With India already qualifying as hosts for next year’s World Cup, India fielded an inexperienced team of up to 12 debutants for the tournament in order to gain some much-needed experience.
The young lads didn’t have the best of chances to start off with a 1-1 draw against Pakistan before losing 5-2 to Japan which brought them close to elimination.
But the Indians were in no mood to say goodbye without a fight, even though they were at the point of no return. They staged a dramatic turnaround to keep their title defense hopes alive.
They were also supported by Japan, who defeated Pakistan 3-2 in their last game.
After the first goal is achieved, the Indians want to restart in the Super 4 phase, where Japan, South Korea and Malaysia are the other three teams. All teams play against each other, with the top two places going to the final.
Revenge would be high on India’s agenda after losing to the Japanese in the pool stages.
But that would be easier said than done as the nimble Japanese rely mostly on counterattacks to surprise their opponents, a trick they pulled off perfectly in their last game against India.
One of the constant concerns for India is the low percentage of penalty corner conversions as this team does not have a proven drag-flicker like Rupinderpal Singh or Amit Rohidas. In fact, even against minnows Indonesia, India couldn’t even convert half of the 20+ short corners they earned.
The Indian defence, led by Lakra, must do its best to stop the speedy Japanese while the midfield must keep the team together to create chances up front.
Dipsan Tirkey, who scored five goals against Indonesia, excelled at converting penalty corners but there is cause for concern as India could only use nine of the 22 short corners they scored in the last game.
Young Uttam Singh needs to be more precise with his finish in the circle of opponents but Pawan Rajbhar has been the star for India so far. With his strong runs, he not only created chances, but also scored goals.
Experienced SV Sunil scored twice against Indonesia but age seemed to have caught up with him as his trademark electrifying runs down the flanks are absent from his game.
But to defeat Japan, the Indians will need to produce a more disciplined performance, which was lacking in the first encounter between the two teams.
South Korea meets Malaysia in another Super 4 stage match.
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