Bhubaneswar: India outplayed reigning Asian Games champion Japan 7-2 to storm into the summit clash of the FIH Series Finals hockey tournament here on Friday, assuring themselves a place in the year end's Olympic qualifying event.
Returning to the side after a long injury lay-off, Ramandeep Singh (23rd, 37th minutes) finally got his mojo back with a double strike, while Harman-preet Singh (7th), Varun Kumar (14th), Hardik Singh (25th), Gursahibjit Singh (43rd) and Vivek Sagar Prasad (47) also registered their names on the scoresheet.
Japan’s goals were scored by Kenji Kitazato (2nd) and Kota Watanabe (20th).
India will face South Africa in Saturday’s final while Japan will square off against USA in the third-fourth place play-off match.
For the first time in the tournament, the Indian defence was literally tested as world no. 18 Japan gave a good account of themselves in patches.
To the dismay of the home crowd, Japan took the lead in the second minute from a counter attack. Kitazato slammed home past Indian goalkeeper Krishan Bahadur Pathak after receiving a pass from Kenta Tanaka from their first attack.
The stunned Indians got their act together quickly and created a flurry of opportunities. Young Gursahibjit Singh was guilty of wasting a golden chance in the fifth minute from close range after he was beautifully set up by Nilkanta Sharma and Ramandeep.
Two minutes later, India secured back-to-back penalty corners and Harmanpreet equalised from the second chance. The Indians kept up the pressure and earned three consecutive short corners in the 14th minute and this time Varun beat Japan defence with a powerful grounded flick to hand the hosts a 2-1 lead.
But the Japanese caught the Indian defence off-guard once again in the 20th minute with another fine counter-attack when Watanabe scored after being set up by Kazuma Murata. Japan’s joy was shortlived as India restored their lead three minutes later through Ramandeep, who scored his first goal for the country after returning from a year's injury hiatus.
Ramandeep scored with his trademark deflection from the near post after a Gurinder Singh pass from the right flank. Minutes later, India made the scoreline 4-2 when Hardik scored with a slap shot from the top of the D.
India secured their sixth short corner soon but Varun’s effort was defended by Japanese goalkeeper Yusuke Takano. Next it was PR Sreejesh’s turn to show his skills in front of the post when he denied Shota Yamada with a diving save from Japan’s first penalty corner.
After the change of ends, the play was mostly on the Japan half as India kept up the pressure to score three more goals.
First Ramandeep scored his second of the day in the 37th minute with a rebound from a penalty corner and then Gursahibjit and Vivek Sagar Prasad also sounded the board from field efforts to register an emphatic win for India.
The FIH Series Finals provide two spots in the Olympic qualifiers to be held in October-November this year. Earlier, South Africa had scored a late goal to eke out a 2-1 victory over the USA and enter the summit clash.
The first semifinal between South Africa, the second highest ranked team in the tournament at 16, and world no. 25 USA was a hard-fought duel with the Americans looking on course for another upset win till the 42nd minute.
Despite South Africa dominating the early exchanges, it was USA who took the lead in the 15th minute through a penalty corner conversion by Aki Kaeppeler. Stunned by the goal, the Africans pressed hand in the second quarter but failed to utilise the chances and USA went into the breather leading by a solitary goal.
South Africa kept up the pressure in the third quarter and eqaulised when Austin Smith converted a penalty corner in the 42nd minute.
From there on, both the teams tried hard to score the all-important winner but just when it looked the tournament would witness its first shoot-out, South Africa capitalise on USA’s defensive lapse and struck just at the stroke of the final hooter through Nicholas Spooner to march into Saturday’s final. The win came as a sweet revenge for the Africans who were beaten 2-0 by the USA in the pool stages of the tournament....