The coaches of the two Indian hockey teams – the men’s and the women’s – had made contrasting statements before leaving for the Asian Games in Jakarta. Their mission, of course, was to win the gold medal and book a berth for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Harendra Singh, the men’s team coach had said “anything less than a gold would be unacceptable.” The semi-final defeat in a nerve-wracking shootouts would have been hard to take for him. Sjoerd Marijne, on the other hand, did not guarantee a gold medal for India. Even as his team made the quarter-final of the World Cup and being the highest ranked side in Jakarta, he named three opponents – Korea, China and Japan – who could pose a threat to India’s bid to win a historic gold medal.

Rani Rampal and company subdued Korea 4-1, pipped China 1-0 (thanks to a 51st minute drag-flick by Gurjit Kaur) but, against the third opponent in Marijne’s threat-list, on a day when it mattered the most, they were unable to raise their game and fell short tactically to lose the match 1-2.

This defeat also means India have missed the direct entry to Tokyo Olympics. Like their male counterparts, they need to go through a grind now to get there.

Poor passing and trapping

Unlike their previous games, India, on Friday, got off to a quick start. The intent, apparently, was to explode into the unsettled defence of Japan and take an early lead. Had it happened, India – as the favourites – would have been on the driver’s seat. India came close to doing that when captain Rani Rampal penetrated the Japanese circle and attempted to score. But the ball was comfortably wide.

Japan counter-attacked after this and settled into the game. Their defence slowly solidified and it was getting tougher and tougher for the Indians to even enter the Japanese circle. Japan’s biggest strength, like India, is their defence, which, perhaps is not as good as India’s. They had conceded three goals in their undefeated run to the final. India had conceded just one. On Friday, the bulwarks of both teams were tough to breach. In 60 minutes, there were only nine shots on goals (India: 7, Japan: 2).

Against China in the semi-final, India had won by one goal – off a penalty corner. But they had 12 shots on goals. Which means, they must have penetrated the Chinese circle on several occasions. And, the more circle entries the team makes, the more opportunities they can create. Like the match-winning penalty corner that they got with nine minutes left in the game.

But this wasn’t possible against Japan, not only because of their solid defence but also because of India’s poor trapping and passing. Several of India’s long passes from near the sidelines either went out or found no teammate near the opposition circle. And many passes from the half-line, they struggled to trap, fumbled and ultimately lost the ball to the opposition.

India couldn’t find an answer to Japan’s full press

India had a similar problem against Ireland, another defensive powerhouse, in the hockey World Cup. They lost to them twice in the tournament: a 0-1 defeat in the group stage before getting knocked out by them (via a penalty shootout) in the quarter-final.

The Asian Games final, on Friday, was similar to that World Cup quarter-final game. The match against Ireland saw just three shots on goals and one failed penalty corner. On Wednesday, too, India failed to convert a PC that came their way in the ninth minute. Gurjit’s drag-flick to the top right corner of the post was saved by the Japanese goalie.

Japan, through superb variations, converted the PCs they got in the 10th and 43rd minute. They, like Ireland did in the World Cup, were content to play full press, marking the Indian women and cutting off their flow. And, India, fumbling with the trapping, could find no solution to this.

A spur of magic – a spirited run or a genius pass or both – was needed for India to win the game. They’d equalised the game when Navneet Kaur and Navjot Kaur played a superb one-two, befuddling the Japanese defence before the former reverse-hit the ball to Neha Goyal waiting at the goal mouth.

A similar occasion, alas, didn’t arise for India.