| Teammates congratulate Dhanraj Pillay (centre) after his goal against Japan in the Asian Games group A hockey match in Busan Wednesday. India won 3-0
Busan: The ghost of Kuala Lumpur was well and truly buried as defending champions India fired Japan 3-0 to sweep into the Asian Games hockey semi-finals on a windy Wednesday afternoon at the Gangseo Stadium.
Deepak Thakur sounded the board after 20 minutes. Dhanraj Pillay and Daljit Dhillon got on the scoresheet in the second session to make the margin a healthy one.
With South Korea also confirming their last-four berth after whipping Hong Kong 14-1, it’s now between India and the hosts to decide the pool A toppers.
A draw will take the Koreans to the peak on better goal difference. That could mean an India-Pakistan semi-final, which is what the Indian coach is looking forward to.
“We would like to face Pakistan in the semi-finals, as they play skilful and traditional hockey which suits us,” quipped Rajinder Singh at the post-match conference.
Rajinder was satisfied with the improvement his boys showed from the Hong Kong match. But there still are a few grey areas the team would like to iron out.
The start, for one. The Indians once again got off the blocks very sluggishly. For the first 15 minutes, in fact, they seemed to be going through the motions as if somebody had pushed a reluctant group of men onto the pitch.
The Japanese took this opportunity to launch a couple of dangerous forays, one of which could have hurt their opponents had Bharat Chhetri not been alert. Naoya Iwadate’s cross was cleared by the ’keeper just as the enterprising Takahiko Yamahori was readying to take aim. That was one of young Chhetri’s four outstanding saves.
The two early goals they conceded to Japan in the Kuala Lumpur World Cup perhaps played on the Indians’ mind and they were ready to soak in a bit of early pressure before pressing forward at full throttle.
The defence, it must be said, stood up to the task well. Dilip Tirkey and Kanwalpreet Singh denied the Japanese any space in the striking zone, Jugraj Singh and Ignace Tirkey helped them out too.
Pillay, these days more of a playmaker than a goal-scorer, made his presence felt in the 15th minute. Pouncing on a loose ball just inside the Japanese half, he ran wide and pushed the ball diagonally for the onrushing Deepak Thakur. It was a gem of a pass but Thakur shot straight at ’keeper Yasuhiro Nobui.
The first goal came five minutes later. ‘Mr Consistent’ Gagan Ajit Singh trapped a long ball from Kanwalpreet facing his own goal, quickly pivoted and released the ball square for Thakur to hit in promptly.
India came close to doubling their advantage twice in the first five minutes after half-time. Gagan Ajit’s smart attempt off a Pillay pass went four inches wide and Dhillon’s reverse flick was palmed away by the custodian.
Pillay set off a move in the 11th minute which he himself finished. He fed Dhillon and the left-half found Gagan Ajit whose hard hit was padded away by the ’keeper.
The rebound went as far as Pillay and he graciously accepted the offer.
Ignace Tirkey can claim credit for the third goal. His searing run down the middle caught the Japanese napping and all Dhillon had to do was trap the pass and push into a gaping net.
Japan did manage three penalty corners in the second half. Two of those were well struck by Akira Takahashi, but Chhetri refused to be beaten.
“We had a strategy which worked well,” Rajinder explained. “We deliberately brought men back at times to slow down the pace. Only in patches did we go all out.”
The Indians are at the business end of the competition, there will be no more easy pickings. It is time to separate the boys from the men.