Japan put on an absolute display as they literally went through the Indian team to beat them 5-2 in the Group A league match of the Asian Cup Men’s Hockey Championship on Tuesday.
After drawing against Pakistan in the opening game, India’s chances after this defeat will be seriously dented, as even a big win against Indonesia in the last game might not be enough to qualify for the knockout stages.
Ken Nagayoshi, Kosei Kawabe (twice), Ryomi Ooka and Koji Yamasaki scored for Japan while Pawan Rajbhar and Uttam Singh found the target for the Indians.
However, the younger generation of players was no match for the Japanese, who seemed more organized and hit India several times on the counters.
The two seniors – Birendra Lakra and SV Sunil – looked well past their prime and couldn’t make any tangible difference with their performances.
“The first two quarters were very difficult because we couldn’t find any rhythm. We improved in the last two quarters but we didn’t create many chances,” said Lakra, the captain of the team. ‘India.
“In the last quarter we lost our defensive structure and conceded a few goals. We also lost two men and that had an effect,” added Lakra.
India could have gone ahead in the fifth minute of the first half themselves when 20-year-old Karthi Selvam saved a perfect cross an inch from wide left for veteran SV Sunil, who was inches away from putting his stick down for a tap-in.
The first quarter was all about trying to take control of the midfield, with the rookie Indian players losing a lot of possession during the play phase.
But, much to their delight, the Japanese also failed to make too many advances except for a penalty corner, which was well saved by a diving Indian goalkeeper Suraj Karkera.
However, in the second quarter, central midfielder Raj Kumar took a crack on goal from the edge of the kicking circle, which was saved by Japanese goalkeeper Koji Yamasaki and, much to India’s horror, the ball. found Sunil’s boots while hiding inside the ‘D’.
But India suddenly fizzled out in the second quarter after that initial spark, even as the Japanese upped their ante and earned two more penalty corners – the first of which found drag-flicker Yoshiki Kirishita out of place as his powerful drag-flick navigated the traverse much more.
However, in the 24th minute, Ken Nagayoshi converted the penalty corner with a powerful angled drive that beat a dive from Suraj.
There was a chance for an equalizer when Nilam Sanjeep Xess’ assist found Raj Kumar, whose reverse shot was saved by the keeper.
The problem with the inexperienced team was their propensity to attack mainly in the middle third instead of extending play on the wide flanks.
Aging Sunil’s poor outing didn’t help the Indians much either as the team seemed to lack the art of playing the pressing game to win penalty corners unlike the Japanese, who were brilliant on the counter during the two last quarters of the game.
It was in the 40th minute that Japan made it 2-0 in a counterattack with Kosei Kawabi snatching the ball from the Indian midfielder and sprinting down the right wing while running with left-back Dipsan Tirkey ragged with its speed.
It was a spectacular goal with Kawabi with his back to the Indian goal with his markers Dipsan and Nilam closing in on him. With a body feint, Kawabi took goalkeeper Suraj on the wrong foot, then smashed him from a sharp angle.
India found something in the final moments of the third quarter when veteran Birendra Lakra kept a powerful assist inside the melee of the striking circle.
Tall centre-forward Pawan Rajbhar was in the right place to land his stick for a perfect deflection that found the top corner of the net.
The final quarter saw the Indians once again give their all and concede a goal against the run of play in the 49th minute.
With all but one of the players on the straddle, Ryosei Kato got a cross pass down the wide right and he cut inside with goalkeeper Suraj at his mercy and Ryomo Ooka waiting for an open goal.
Kato passed it to Ooka, who happily put it up to make it 3-1.
However, India equalized on the next stroke when Rajbhar sent in a cross from the right and striker Uttam Singh hit it from close range to make it 2-3.
But there was more bad luck for India as they suddenly lost the numerical advantage with temporary suspensions of Rajbhar and Karthi.
The nine-on-eleven became a lopsided fight as Japan repeatedly used the right flank to launch their attack. Koji Yamasaki netted his goal in the 54th minute with a touch after neither of the Indian defenders bothered to intercept a cross from the wide right.
Indian resistance had ended and the fifth goal was the final nail in the coffin – Kawabe headed home in the 56th minute after his first shot bounced off the goalkeeper.